From the Director's Desk (Fall 2013)

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Michael Sleasman laid the Chicago Tribune on my desk. Yes, the print version. Who would have thought that one newspaper section could provide so much fodder for bioethical discussion? Join me as I “read” the paper and informally reflect. (And please overlook all the quote marks—annoying to read, but necessary for accuracy.)

The front page story—above the fold—was headlined: “Couple Battle over Frozen Embryos.” Caption under photo accompanying story: “A devastating cancer diagnosis for Jacob Szafranski’s girlfriend of five months led the couple to deposit genetic material for future children.”[1] Five months into a romantic relationship, the reporters write, Jacob and his girlfriend Karla decided to use his sperm and her eggs to create embryos prior to Karla’s undergoing chemotherapy which could make her infertile. Three embryos were created; the couple broke up; Karla was indeed infertile and wanted the embryos; Jacob refused.

The gametes—sperm and eggs—were labeled “genetic material” several times in the article. That was a new term for me. I think a cheek swab or donated blood could also appropriately be labeled “genetic material.” This latest permutation of language minimizes the significance of what the couple was doing and the physical processes involved in retrieving her eggs and his sperm. The embryos were variously called “fertilized eggs” and “pre-embryos.” The scientific term for a fertilized egg is “zygote.” Zygotes created via IVF may be frozen for later use, but it is more common—and better practice—to freeze them at the blastocyst stage. Would a little fact-checking be in order?

Karla argued for the right to have “her biological child” and to “control the destiny of the embryos.” Jason argued that “forced procreation” would violate his constitutional right and jeopardize his future prospects of having “a child of my own.” (He speculated that his prospective girlfriend would reject a man who had an unknown child with another woman, “neither of which I have ever loved.”) After so many years of legal cases that focus heavily on a woman’s reproductive autonomy, it is curious to read of a man using the same language.

Nowhere in the story did I see any hint of concern for the best interests of the children. That’s not surprising, since the relationship was not built on mutual self-giving and the marital promise of lifetime commitment. The sacrificial love of parent for child was completely absent from the contract language regarding disposition of the embryos that was the basis of the legal dispute.

At the bottom of page one was a story about Walgreens’s new approach to healthcare coverage for its employees, intended to give the workers greater flexibility and control in selecting an appropriate plan for their needs.[2] Walgreens is moving their health coverage for employees from self-insurance to a private exchange. It is more evidence of the scramble to understand and comply with the ongoing rollout of the Affordable Care Act.

A report toward the end of the section described a study highlighting the wide disparities in access to healthcare for those living in poverty. “These variations in insurance coverage in many cases are mirrored by disparities in access to care, quality of care and even health outcomes.”[3] This is a major concern of public health, and another reason why we need to advance Christian scholarship and reflection in this area.

Ah, some good news. Adjacent to the disparities report was a new study about childhood obesity. It seems to be leveling off, with “big gains” (by which the author means less obesity) in some areas.[4] Exercise and consumption of fruits and vegetables are up; TV watching and consumption of sugary drinks are down. Although cautious, the authors of the study note that, “It may be that current public health efforts are succeeding.” As a Christian, I am grateful for food pantries, school lunchrooms, community gardens, and other ventures that expand access to otherwise unaffordable or unavailable fresh fruit and vegetables.

Judaism is reviewing the use of technology on the Sabbath and in services.[5] Does using an iPad in the service violate the commandment against working on the Sabbath? Ultra- Orthodox, Orthodox, Reform, and Conservative rabbis each answer differently. This reminded me of my Everyday Bioethics commentary, “A Technology Sabbath,” where I wrestled with the tendency of new technologies to control us, rather than the other way around. For all of us, these evolving technologies present continually perplexing ethical challenges. In just one section of the newspaper, I found a handful of bioethical connections, each worth its own essay. The next time you read a print newspaper or journal, take the time to read critically and notice how bioethics seems to be always and everywhere in the news.


[1] Bonnie Miller Rubin and Angie Leventis Lourgos, “Couple Battle over Frozen Embryos,” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2013.

[2] Peter Frost, “Walgreen Shifts Approach to Worker Health Coverage,” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2013.

[3] Noam M. Levy, “Study: ‘Two Americas’ in Health Care for Poor,” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2013.

[4] Melissa Healy, “Study See[sic] Signs U.S. Teens Adopting Healthier Habits,” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2013.

[5] Michelle Boorstein, “Honor the Sabbath, Switch Off the iPad?” Chicago Tribune, September 18, 2013.