A Big Day for Gay Rights?

Church and State both took tentative strides towards granting gays and lesbians greater rights yesterday. In Massachusetts a federal judge overturned the 1996 Defense of Marriage Act, which bars the federal government from recognizing same-sex marriage. Meanwhile, in Minnesota, leaders of the Presbyterian Church (USA) voted last night to ordain non-celibate gay and lesbian clergymen but tabled discussion on a more progressive measure to embrace same-sex marriage. Big Think talked with several experts today to gauge exactly how important these developments are for the gay rights movement. 


In two separate cases, Judge Joseph L. Tauro of United States District Court of Boston ruled that same-sex couples deserve the same federal benefits as heterosexual couples. If upheld, this decision would guarantee federal benefits in the five states that allow same-sex marriage and the District of Columbia. But the decision will certainly be appealed by the Department of Justice, most likely reaching the Supreme Court. Though the Obama administration has made clear its opposition to the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), the Department of Justice is obliged to defend the constitutionality of existing laws. Legal experts are divided as to whether the ruling will hold up to the appeal, says The New York Times.

NYU law professor Kenji Yoshino explained to Big Think today that the two cases involved in this ruling challenge DOMA from two very different angels. One case used the 10th Amendment to call into question the federal government's powers vis-a-vis states' rights; the other argues that the law violates equal protection under the law embodied in the 5th Amendment. Yoshino calls this two-pronged challenge "an ingenious pincers movement." The two arguments are "mutually reinforcing in an interesting way," he said. "Many judges who would be against same-sex marriage would still be for the states' right to define it." Ultimately, though, he believes "the 5th Amendment route is more likely to succeed than the 10th Amendment route because the precedents here are more robust." And if the case does make it to the Supreme Court, the outcome, he said, "will come down, as usual, to Justice Kennedy." 

The vote by Presbyterian leaders yesterday is also only a provisional one. While important symbolically, it will not become official doctrine until a majority of the church's 173 "presbyteries," or district governing bodies, approve the measure.

Ann Craig, Director of Religion, Faith & Values for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation, spoke with Big Think today from Minnesota where yesterday's meeting was held. "The Presbyterian Church meets every two years, and in the past two meetings they have consistently made steps towards full equality," she said. In 2008, Presbyterian leaders voted in favor of ordaining gays and lesbians, but the measure failed to garner support in the presbyteries. But this time around, says Craig, people are very hopeful: "The last time they received historic levels of support from unexpected places like the Carolinas and rural areas in the Midwest and Southeast." 

If the measure is accepted, the Presbyterian Church will join a growing number of Protestant denominations that allow same-sex clergy, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the U.S. Episcopal Church. And two major U.S. denominations—the United Church of Christ and the Unitarian Universalist Association of Congregations—explicitly allow same-sex marriage. The Catholic Church, however, shows no signs of loosening its stance towards gay ordination or same-sex marriage. Father James Martin, a Jesuit priest and BT expert, said the likelihood of a similar action in the Catholic Church is "slim to none." The Vatican, he said, "has been very clear about not accepting gay men into seminaries and religious orders." 

But Father Martin added, "the Presbyterian Church's decision is a positive reflection of society's greater acceptance of gays and lesbians in our country."

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
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  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. Think a dialysis machine for the mind. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.