Why Is It So Hard To Agree On When Human Life Starts?
After decades of deliberations involving physicians, bioethicists, attorneys, and theologians, a U.S. presidential commission in 1981 settled on a scientifically derived dividing line between life and death that has endured, more or less, ever since: A person was considered dead when the entire brain—including the brainstem, its most primitive portion—was no longer functioning, even if other vital functions could be maintained indefinitely through artificial life support.
In the decades since, the committee’s criteria have served as a foundation for laws in most states adopting brain death as a standard for legal death.
Now, with the overturning of Roe v. Wade and dozens of states rushing to impose abortion restrictions, American society is engaged in a chaotic race to define the other pole of human existence: When exactly does human life begin? At conception, the hint of a heartbeat, a first breath, the ability to survive outside the womb with the help of the latest technology?
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Taxpayer-Funded Science Is Finally Becoming Public
Last week, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy announced a new directive requiring federally-funded science be made available to the public for free, and faster.
Set to take effect by the end of 2025, the new rule would do away with the Obama-era policy that journals can keep research with taxpayer funding behind paywalls for up to one year. In addition, more kinds of research would qualify than previous policies have required.
So how does freely accessible research benefit the people who pay for it—or the scientists who do the work itself? Nobel Prize-winning medical researcher and open science advocate Harold Varmus joins Ira to discuss.
Why You Should Thank Your Local Wasp
It’s late in the summer, meaning any outdoor gathering with food and drink has a good chance of being visited by a pesky, buzzing wasp. But don’t reach for that rolled-up newspaper or can of bug spray. The wasps in your world play an important role that’s often overlooked.
Far beyond the social hornets and yellowjackets people think about when they picture a wasp, the wasp world includes thousands of species. Some are parasitic, injecting their eggs into unwilling prey. Others hunt, either paralyzing prey for their young to feed on, or by bringing bits of meat back to a nest for their young. Some are strictly vegetarian, and live on pollen. Some are needed for the pollination of figs and certain species of orchids.
Dr. Seirian Sumner, a behavioral biologist at University College London, says that if people understood the services provided by wasps the same way that they understand the need for bees, they might be more willing to overlook an occasional wasp annoyance—and might even be thankful for the wasps in their lives. In her book Endless Forms: The Secret World of Wasps, Sumner makes the case for wasps as nature’s pest control agents, as important pollinators that should be celebrated.
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