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Fighting terrorism, obesity, fluoride and brain-lead levels

STEM-CELL RESEARCH

Poor Jack, or is it Jill, pictured sitting atop a needle on the cover of your July-August issue ("Stem-Cell Science," by Jonathan Shaw, page 36). Jack or Jill has no chance of surviving, has he/she? Let’s hope his/her murderers come to swift justice.

Embryonic stem cells, being pluripotent and as treated in the unnatural environment of a laboratory, give rise not so much to bright prospects as to terrifying risks. What if we inadvertently launch a new virus capable of infecting every human adolescent with a deadly disease that attacks every cell of the body? Has Harvard the insurance to pay for the loss?

With this initiative, Harvard has found a new money-grubbing low.

J.R. Breton, A.M. ’59
Walpole, Mass.

 

Environment is a critical determinant of terrestrial life, including human life. Any living organism that finds itself in a sufficiently inhospitable environment relatively rapidly loses the status of being alive. We know this both cognitively and instinctively. The largest component of human exploration is the creation and maintenance of artificial environments, be they bathyscapes, space stations, or encampments in Antarctica; we flee from burning buildings.

Embryonic life is no different; if not in a suitable environment, it dies. Technology has created intermediate environments, where death is not imminent, but embryonic development is impossible. Human embryos, such as result from in vitro fertilization, have no possibility of becoming functionally human organisms within such environments. To have any such chance, they must (among other things) be implanted into a woman’s womb. Under the "equal moral status" doctrine, however, an embryo can have no more right to the use of any woman’s reproductive tract than any arbitrarily nominated adult. Pursuant to that doctrine, then, embryos in such circumstances are in a kind of limbo, with some claim to rights to be treated as human life but with no rights to become anything more recognizably human than the blob of cells they comprise. Professor Robert George’s positions seem to imply that only biological developmental destiny or death, but not utility, are acceptable ethical options for human tissue. If so, are organ donations an abomination?

This last question takes on increasing relevance as technology brings us ever closer to the time when any human tissue sample may have some potential to become an independent human individual. Even if human cloning becomes a reality, it will remain ethically acceptable to value for their utility certain examples of human tissue, such as donated organs, because they do not have any likelihood of becoming an independent and fully developed human being without significant and unmandated intervention. That criterion, in the absence of any right of an embryo to use a woman’s uterus to develop and mature, renders untenable any ethical objection to using unimplanted human embryos in stem-cell research.

Keith Backman, Ph.D. ’77
Bedford, Mass.

 

In the "debate" on "the moral status of the embryo," Princeton professor of jurisprudence Robert George sets forth views I wish to dispute.

Calling a blastocyst containing human DNA a "human being" is a semantic judgment, not a scientific one. The existence of human DNA is not "scientific evidence" that a blastocyst is an entity of the kind entitled to "the intrinsic dignity of every human being."

Referring to the statement in the Declaration of Independence that every human being is "endowed by the Creator with certain inalienable rights," and declaring that "We don’t get those rights from the state, and therefore, the state can’t take them away," is a religious judgment, not a jurisprudential one.

It strikes me as disingenuous of George to elude the origins of these assertions in his Roman Catholic faith and to claim "science" as a source. The same may be said of his espousal (as reported in the Princeton Alumni Weekly of October 8, 2003) of the doctrine of "natural law," a concept regarded by many as failing on jurisprudential and epistemological grounds. Having taken "Coninterp" at Princeton under George’s predecessor Alpheus T. Mason, and having studied constitutional law at the Harvard Law School under Paul Freund, I am disappointed.

Edward C. Mendler, LL.B. ’52
Wayland, Mass.

 

Since Professor George makes light of the argument that an embryo is a potential life, rather than human life itself, and since he apparently holds Thomas Aquinas in high regard, it may be useful to be reminded of Aquinas’s words: "The ancient naturalists did not know how to distinguish between actuality and potentiality" (Summa Theologica, Q 75, Art 1).

It appears to me that George suffers from the same defect as those whom Aquinas corrects. The development of life forms "is a continuous process," as George says, but it is a process that goes through definite and differentiable stages. The real issue is not whether an embryo has life; of course it does. But "life" did not begin there; the sperm and ovum had life before fertilization. The real question is whether an embryo is a person in the full sense of actuality or whether it is a potential person. The Bush school of theology talks of life beginning at conception and then when you are not looking substitutes personhood for the word "life."

A polliwog is not a frog. An acorn is not an oak tree. An embryo is not a fetus. They have the potential of becoming their respective fulfillments. Aquinas was not right about everything, but his full discussion in the passage referred to shows how important he regarded the distinction between potentiality and actuality.

Charles S. Milligan, S.T.M. ’48, Ph.D. ’51
Denver

 

I strongly favor embryonic stem-cell research because of the great benefits it promises in curing a host of terrible diseases. I incurred polio years ago and am paralyzed from the waist down, but at age 72 I don’t expect any personal benefit from stem-cell research.

You describe George as concluding that human life begins at conception and all human life is of equal moral status. Conceding the former proposition doesn’t negate the value of embryonic stem-cell research. It’s carrying logic to an illogical conclusion.

Thousands of human embryos are discarded annually from fertility clinics. If what George says is valid, no doubt a zealous prosecutor could prosecute: the physicians (first-degree murder?) who discard the unwanted embryos, the parents who consent (accessories before the fact), and the trash disposers who knowingly throw out unwanted embryos (accessories after the fact).

Richard B. Treanor, J.D. ’56
Washington, D.C.

 

EDITOR’S HIGHLIGHTS

Harvard Magazine invites you to register for "Editor’s Highlights," a bimonthly text message summarizing the contents of each new issue and offering links to articles. It is e-mailed just as each edition is posted on this website. Readers living outside the United States, who don’t automatically receive the print edition of the magazine, may find this an especially helpful way to keep in touch with the University and each other. 

Human beings are either men or women or children. That is common knowledge and common usage. Consequently, despite all the fancy talk about the moral status of embryos and fetuses, until we are born, we are part of a woman’s body, and I don’t think we have any right to interfere with what a sane person decides to do with her (or his) body.

We can love little hunks even long before they have become persons, long before they are born. And religions, of course, can attribute value to anything they please as a matter of ritual or metaphysical conviction. Democratic ideology demands that we respect that. It also demands that people should not try to force their metaphysical convictions on the rest of us.

It is a deep error to confuse such convictions with science.

Arnold Simmel ’47
Cummington, Mass.

 

The "beginning of life" argument has no meaning because both the sperm and the egg are alive before they form a zygote. The "beginning of human life" is a mystery we have never solved and never will. It depends upon your definition of human. Is a human an independent mammal with certain physical aspects? If so, even a year-old baby is not a human being because he is completely dependent. But if you define it as a potential independent mammal, both the sperm and the egg qualify because any "potential" entity must meet certain requirements to reach that potential, and for an egg or a sperm that requirement includes, among others, that they meet and join.

Egotistical Man has himself decided that he is different from all other living things. He has assumed that our creator has given us "dominion" over all other living things—a responsibility we have failed miserably. We have taken all of God’s things—the forests, the animals, the oceans, the skies—and plundered and destroyed them systematically. Why is it worse to redirect the goals of a frozen human zygote for the medical benefit of thousands of other people than to destroy a full-grown cow to make a fat-rich McDonald’s burger? Our creator made that cow, too. And while we’re at it, why is it acceptable to send thousands of adult human beings to their death in territorial wars for the benefit of some megalomaniac’s ego? They sacrifice much more than the zygote can.

Jeremy Gorman ’49
Wilmington, Vt.

 

Nancy Reagan commented in July that "Science has presented us with a hope called stem-cell research, which may provide our scientists with answers that have so long been beyond our grasp. I just don’t see how we can turn our backs on this." But that is exactly what the Bush administration and Congress have done.

The last 10 years have steeled Mrs. Reagan and her family to the suffering millions of American families face every year from Alzheimer’s. The Republican push to idolize Reagan on coins, currency, and county courthouses, rather than honor him by funding research to cure the disease that killed him, is shameful.

Ronald Reagan’s greatest legacy may well be the no-nonsense approach of Nancy Reagan to his illness and her response to conservative boondoggles: just say no to empty gestures, and say yes to our capacity to improve quality of life through science.

Flavia Colgan ’99
Los Angeles

 

A MAGNIFICENT GIFT

Jonathan J. Ledecky

Jonathan J. Ledecky ’79, M.B.A. ’83, elected chief marshal of his College class’s twenty-fifth reunion, fulfilled his role with customary brio. At the midday spread, he delivered a stemwinding salute to the Commencement honorands, faculty, Governing Boards, alumni leaders, and President Lawrence H. Summers, before proposing that a final toast—"To Harvard, forever!"—become an annual tradition. That depends on successor chief marshals. But Ledecky did secure another Harvard tradition. As part of his class gift, he endowed this magazine’s "Undergraduate" editorial fellows, whose work he has supported since 1991 to honor his mother, Berta Greenwald Ledecky. This transformative gift, the largest in the magazine’s history, assures the development of wonderful student writers. In this issue alone we proudly present their lively dispatches from Cambodia, Egypt, England, and Iraq—with their profound thanks, and ours.

~The Editors

TERRORISTS AND U.S. POLICY

Jessica Stern of the Kennedy School of Government makes an amazingly accurate overall assessment of many of the facts around today’s massive and terribly dangerous terrorist threat ("Caliphate of Terror," July-August, page 26) and then draws a conclusion, from a perspective I can’t fathom, that it is our fault! It is much like blaming a traffic cop directing traffic at a dangerous intersection for being run down by a drunken driver. What would she have us do? Cut and run like the Spanish? Try bribery and under-the-counter dealings like the French, Germans, and Russians? Relegate all education to fanatics like the Saudis, or try to reach some rapprochement à la the Cold War? None of which will work. The terrorists will try to destroy our way of life unless we do (and succeed at) exactly what the United States is doing now. Obvious ineptitude on the part of the pre-war intelligence and the post-active-war peacekeeping do not alter the overarching reality that al Qaeda seeks exactly what Stern posits: "the ultimate objective is to ‘purify’ the world based on a fantasized simpler, purer past." Continued blathering by the mainstream media and much of academia do nothing but embolden and assist the terrorists and rogue states in their misguided and fanatic actions.

Jerry D. Lambo, M.B.A. ’64
Colonel (retired), U.S. Army
Medford, Ore.

 

Our lack of understanding of al Qaeda has not made the world more dangerous; past and current U.S. foreign policy has. Short-sighted policies led to the birth of al Qaeda in the 1980s and dangerously militaristic policies now ensure its survival.

During the 1980s, the United States was willing to train and arm—including providing Stinger antiaircraft weapons to —the mujahadeen in Afghanistan, knowing full well that their ranks were full of maniacal killers who as we know became the nucleus of al Qaeda. This terrorist breeding ground was useful at the time in the U.S. efforts to repulse the Soviet invasion. Thereafter, the student turned on the teacher for reasons that are spelled out in al Qaeda’s communications.

After September 11, the United States was in a position to utilize the sympathy generated by the attacks to possibly capture and prosecute the perpetrators. By 2003, the United States had lost this moral high ground by invading a sovereign country, Iraq, which posed no real security threat. Furthermore, as many sources have indicated, the invasion of Iraq played into al Qaeda’s hands by demonstrating yet again the immorality of U.S. policy toward Muslim nations. By 2004, the image of the United States in the Muslim world was eroded further by the prisoner-abuse scandals.

If we are serious about wanting to reduce terrorism of the al Qaeda variety, we should examine the policies that led to the problem (such as arming and training extremist groups) and specific actions that cause the jihadist ranks to swell (the invasion of Iraq), and adopt a law-enforcement approach instead of utilizing a blunt tool like the military. Otherwise, this so-called war on terror, an abstract noun, will continue forever.

Kresimir Peharda ’90
Santa Monica, Calif.

 

Stern misses the point completely. The important policy observation is not that terrorists have been more successful than the United States in manipulating European governments. It is that Europe is once again, incredibly, allowing itself to be manipulated into appeasement, as Chamberlain was many decades ago. It is only the United States and its few remaining allies that are not falling into al Qaeda’s trap.

Stern cites numerous polls conducted worldwide, suggesting that since countries such as "Pakistan, Jordan, Morocco, and Turkey" are against the Iraq war, U.S. policy must be wrong. Is it really possible that we should craft policy based on polls in Europe and the Arab world? What can the masses in North Africa, Spain, and France tell us about whether deposing Saddam Hussein and promoting representative government in Iraq is the right policy?

Amazingly, though not surprisingly, Stern omits the one country where polls on this issue really do matter. If the people of Iraq were against this effort, then clearly we would need a new policy. But polls in Iraq do not fit with Stern’s view.

In Iraq, large majorities believe it is important that people vote in free and fair elections (95 percent), that people abide by the law and criminals are punished (94 percent), that people can criticize the government (86 percent), and that major nationality (89 percent) and religious groups (87 percent) share power (according to the State Department Office of Research). Seven out of 10 say they expect their country and their personal lives will be better five years from now, and 32 percent say things will be much better (Zogby International). Significant majorities of Iraqis have consistently claimed an unfavorable view of Osama bin Laden, unlike their brethren living in the rest of the Arab autocracies (the American Enterprise Institute). Sixty-one percent believe the ouster of Saddam was worth it, although majorities also want U.S. troops to leave as soon as possible (CNN/USA Today/Gallup). If you are trying to help a country rebuild after decades of brutal authoritarian rule, then it is imperative that you enjoy the support of the people of that country. But it couldn’t be less relevant what Pakistanis think, or the French.

Recent events show the results of following Stern’s disastrous policy prescription: the Philippines paying ransom by withdrawing from Iraq in response to a kidnapping. If all states were to follow this course, terrorist groups could halt any effort against them by simply taking one hostage per country joining the effort.

Stern is right that we can’t dismiss virulent anti-Americanism as "idle rhetoric," as Israel once dismissed Palestinian diatribes during the Oslo years. But the lesson to be learned is precisely the opposite of what Stern declares from the ivory tower. We don’t need appeasement and "understanding." We need victory, first militarily, and then through state-building.

Assuming the Kennedy School’s mission is to help craft policy, I truly hope Stern is not the best the school has to offer.

Sanford J. Roskes ’92
Washington, D.C.

 

Stern examines a serious subject in a simplistic manner. We need a wide angle on nonstate terrorism, not a presentist series of anecdotes and partial truths. Even terrorists might agree that the Crusades were a series of unilateral pre-emptive wars, that Western colonizers left behind a bloody trail that included indigenous leadership, that oil has always been coveted by foreign powers, that boundaries were often based on foreign interests. In addition, she might have reminded us that President Eisenhower understood the insatiable need of the military-industrical complex for a demon. Furthermore, the title is insulting; how would you like a title that read "Papacy of Terror" or "Synagogue of Terror"? Readers need to be enlightened. The Cold War us-them approach, and indications that a bigger- than-life al Qaeda movement is just one thing (e.g., nihilistic), are the sorts of partial truths that would be enriched by a reading of Chalmers Johnson’s book Blowback, for starters.

Laura Nader, Ph.D. ’61
Professor of anthropology
University of California, Berkeley

 

I was surprised to find in Stern’s analysis of the causes underlying international terrorism that the words "Israel" and "Palestine" do not appear even once—as if all the tensions with the Islamic world can be safety attributed to wild-eyed mujahadeen who have nothing better to do than sit around and dream up new ways to harass Westerners.

David V. Herlihy ’80
Hull, Mass.

 

Serious readers might forgive Stern for dragging us through a bramble patch of Islamist rantings if in return she rewarded us with anything remotely resembling genuine news, original insights, or constructive suggestions. Such is not the case. All we get are banalities such as "We need to strengthen our alliances" and "we need wholly different perceptions…and policies." How does she propose we strengthen our alliances—by kissing up to the obstructionist and envious French, the guilt-ridden Germans, and the cowardly Socialist prime minister of Spain?

Stern fails to validate her harsh judgment of our country’s foreign policy by at least providing a laundry list of exactly what she has in mind as the "new and enlightened policies designed for the dangerous new terrorist threats we face." New in which aspects? Enlightened how and by whom? She offers instead a pointless mishmash of sniping.

If this performance is typical of her lectures on public policy at the Kennedy School, Allah will surely be pleased.

James W. Fitch ’50, M.B.A. ’53
Santa Rosa, Calif.

 

THE NATION’S OBESITY

As former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture during the Clinton administration, I was pleased to read your extensive coverage on the critical public-health issue of obesity in America ("The Way We Eat Now" by Craig Lambert, May-June, page 50).

There are a few key points that I believe are worth highlighting.

* Our system for making public-policy decisions on food issues may contribute to the difficulty of addressing the obesity problem, as members of Congress and federal regulators are subject to political and business pressures. No discussion of obesity can be complete without understanding how members of Congress interface with the food and agriculture industry, especially given the politics of production agriculture.

* As Americans spend billions of dollars each year chasing after the latest diet craze, it is vital that we conduct reliable scientific research on the effectiveness of these diets and on their health impacts. Some of this research is already underway at Harvard; much more needs to be done. Advances in research will impact the format of USDA’s Food Guide Pyramid and other federal nutrition initiatives.

* Finally, obesity prevention must begin in America’s schools, where children should be educated about healthy eating and served healthy meals. Healthy habits, ingrained early, are likely to last a lifetime.

Daniel R. Glickman
Director, Institute of Politics
John F. Kennedy School of Government
Cambridge

 

Editor’s note: Effective September 1, Glickman assumes the role of president of the Motion Picture Association of America.

 

FLUORIDE AND BRAIN FUNCTION

The letter from Professor Roger Masters regarding toxins and brain function (July-August, page 8) regretfully contains some standard antifluoridationist nonsense that should not go unchallenged. The compounds he calls "untested toxins" are used for water fluoridation—a 59-year-proven, highly cost-effective U.S. public health measure. Fluoride is the thirteenth-most-common element in the earth’s crust and has been recognized as an essential nutrient by the Food and Nutrition Board since 1968 and by the Food and Drug Administration since 1975. As Masters knows, virtually all life-sustaining elements and compounds can have untoward effects in grossly excessive amounts or in unphysiologic concentrations. Iron, calcium, iodine, and fat-soluble vitamins are examples known to the public. Even pure water (tap, bottled, or distilled), when ingested exclusively in large amounts in a crash diet, is responsible for a handful of teen deaths yearly. Would the professor label water a "proven killer"?

In the last fluoride/placebo trial by the National Institutes of Health, pregnant women and the resultant children were given fluoride supplements mostly in larger amounts than would be obtained in fluoridated water. There was a 16-percent reduction in prematurity (a long-recognized risk factor for cognitive function), a slightly increased birth weight (a marker for improved nutrition), and a virtual total prevention of tooth decay—still the most common chronic disease of children. These results so threatened the dental industry that years later, only an erroneous discussion of the findings pertaining to the teeth had been published, in an obscure European dental journal.

While Masters and I view fluoride differently, perhaps we can find common ground in the observation that the once respected term "government scientist" has been largely rendered oxymoronic by the control exercised via the 70,000 lobbyists in Washington.

William D. Glenn III ’53, M.D.
Nutritional consultant,
Children’s Dental Research Society
Vero Beach, Fla.

Masters and his co-researcher, Myron J. Coplan, reply: Dr. Glenn provides what seem to be reasonable comments about the "fluoride" ion and other basic elements. The question, however, concerns the biological effects of "residual species" (compounds) after either hydrofluosilicic acid (H2SiF6) or sodium silicofluoride (Na2SiF6) is added to a public water supply in order to raise the water fluoride level to one part per million. One wonders what Glenn knows about such effects that the Environmental Protection Agency does not.

In 1999, the EPA admitted that it had no data on effects of "chronic exposure" to water treated with these compounds. In three studies of children’s blood lead, we found that where there is lead in the environment, its absorption into blood is significantly increased (as measured by community averages of children’s blood-lead levels) where the water has been treated with these compounds. The issue concerns the findings in our peer-reviewed epidemiological studies, not "standard antifluoridationist nonsense." In fact, both of us are critical of "anti-fluoridationists" as well as "pro-fluoridationists" for talking about "fluoride" under the grossly simplified rubric "fluoride is fluoride is fluoride" and not about the specific chemical compounds used in our water.

This matters not because silicofluorides are toxins before addition to water, but because of what happens to them as they dissociate to liberate free fluoride ions. They do, indeed, dissociate to a considerable extent, but leave behind what the German chemist/toxicologist Johannes Westendorf described as "residual species" of fluorinated silicic acid. Such hydroxo-fluosilicate compounds would have serious adverse biological consequences resulting from their capacity to disrupt polypeptide chain folding. In addition they would bind to heavy metals like lead, so there is no reason to dismiss out of hand the hypothesis that water treated with silicofluorides contains mechanisms of binding and transporting ingested toxins from water or elsewhere in the environment.

By contrast, sodium fluoride is a simple ionizable salt, and since we do not find the same negative effects where sodium fluoride is added to public water supplies, the issue concerns the compounds actually used to fluoridate a public water supply and not "fluoridation" as such.

We would like to ask Glenn if he has read our studies. We suspect that he hasn’t done so, because otherwise he’d have seen our careful attempt to specify the difference between discussing "fluoridation" or "fluoride" in general (as he does in his letter) and assessing the different chemicals used in American water systems (since biological effects of silicofluorides have never been tested adequately). If Glenn actually did read our studies, we leave it to readers to judge his intention.

 

SPEAK UP, PLEASE

Harvard Magazine welcomes letters on its contents. Please write to "Letters," Harvard Magazine, 7 Ware Street, Cambridge 02138, or send comments by facsimile to 617-495-0324, or by e-mail to yourturn[at]harvard [dot] edu, or use this website. Letters may be edited to fit the available space.

END LEGACY ADMISSION

At this year’s commencement, Harvard president Lawrence H. Summers talked at length about the widening inequality gap in the United States and mentioned a number of initiatives Harvard is taking to address the problem ("In the Temper of the Times," July-August, page 46).

Immediately before Summers’s speech, Robert G. Stone Jr. read off the impressive fundraising achievements of reunion classes. He drew attention to the fact that two reunion chairs had the same last name and said that this was the kind of tradition we would like to maintain at Harvard. His proclamation was met with applause from some members of the audience, including briefly from Summers.

It is wonderful to have successive generations of the same family attend Harvard and then commit considerable time and effort to the University. Their contributions, though, would be even more impressive without the fact that children of alumni get "an ever so slight tip." This "tradition" stands in striking contrast to the University’s commitment to educational equality. In the words of the Economist magazine, it is a "helping hand for those who least need it."

Coming from well-educated and relatively wealthy parents, our (future) children will already have an enormous advantage in the college admissions process. Should they ever decide to apply to and be accepted at Harvard, we would not want them to have any doubt in their minds that it is because of their abilities and future potential—not because their parents are Harvard alumni. We urge Harvard to end its policy of favoring children of alumni in the college admissions process.

Gernot Wagner ’02
Siripanth Nippita ’00
Cambridge

 

Editor’s note: Wagner has also presented these views in an open letter to President Summers. For a full list of signatories, see http://gwagner.net/legacy.

 

FURTHER TO "FACETIOUSLY"

You ask ("Letters," July-August, page 87) "How many English words are there that use all the vowels in order?" It is hard to know whether to take this question even half-seriously, but there’s one.

Ulric Neisser ’50
Ithaca N.Y.

 

"Abstemious" is another, as are "arterious," "parecious," "aerious," "acheirous," "acheilous," and "arsenious." Add "ly" if desirous of a concluding letter "y."

Words with the five vowels in reverse order include "suoidea," "duoliteral," "unoriental," "subcontinental," and (ignoring "y") "uncomplimentary." (For more curiosities, see http://members.aol.com/gulfhigh2/words6.html.)

Mark Eckenwiler ’82
Washington, D.C.