Issues Magazine

Articles about Life & Death

Yeast 2.0: How to Build a Genome

By Ian T. Paulsen and Isak S. Pretorius

Reprogramming the software of life takes genomics and bioengineering into a new dimension, and it incites both fascination and concern.

Synthetic biology entails the design and engineering of biologically based parts, novel devices and systems as well as the redesign of existing natural biological systems (see box). Researchers in this emerging science aim to predictably bioengineer organisms for beneficial applications – from the production of new antibiotics, renewable energy and biodegradable pesticides to purifying contaminated water. This so-called genome engineering will pose not only scientific challenges to lab researchers but also ethical and policy challenges to society at large.

Organ Donation: Have You Had the Chat that Saves Lives?

By Organ and Tissue Authority

Despite its importance, organ and tissue donation is not often discussed. DonateLife’s school resources are moving the conversation into the classroom.

We chat with our family and friends about a range of things during the course of any given day. What to have for dinner, where to go on holiday, what is planned for the weekend. One conversation topic we all need to engage with is organ and tissue donation – and this includes in the classroom – to normalise the subject as part of family discussions about end-of-life decisions.

Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

By Michael Cook

Empowering doctors to kill can have incalculable consequences. It is definitely worth debating.

Australia was the first country in the world where doctors could legally euthanase patients. In 1995 the Northern Territory passed the Rights of the Terminally Ill Act by a vote of 15 to 10. Four people died under this legislation over the next 9 months, all of them with the help of a then-unknown doctor named Philip Nitschke. There was an uproar and, after a long national debate, Federal Parliament quashed the Territory’s legislation.

Cell Therapies for Premature Babies

By Rebecca Lim

Research Fellow, Faculty of Medicine, Nursing and Health Sciences, Monash University

Health risks for premature babies can persist well beyond childhood. Cell-based therapies may be the answer to serious lung complications in later life.

Babies born prematurely have a pretty rough start to life. Not surprisingly, this becomes more problematic for extremely premature babies born within the first 26 weeks of pregnancy.

This is a bit of a catch-22, since it the improvements in obstetric and neonatal care that are leading to the increasing number of deliveries of extremely premature babies.

In fact, these days babies as premature as 22 weeks of gestation are now born alive, albeit with health problems.

Zoe’s Law: Will Changing Foetuses’ Legal Status Endanger Abortion Rights?

By Helen Pringle

Senior Lecturer, UNSW Australia

A proposed law debated in the New South Wales parliament last year, which aims to recognise the foetus as a person, sparked concerns about encroachments on women’s reproductive rights. But similar laws in other states haven’t had that effect, and acknowledging the legal status of foetuses may, in fact, spark a more nuanced conversation about abortion.

Known as Zoe’s Law, the bill aimed to criminalise grievous bodily harm to a foetus as a separate offence from harm or injury done to the woman carrying it.

The bill is named in honour of Brodie Donegan’s unborn child, who died at 32 weeks when Donegan was run over by a drug-affected driver in 2009. The driver was prosecuted for grievous bodily harm to Donegan, but could not be charged with Zoe’s death because the law does not recognise a child who is not “born alive” as a person.

The Future of Cemeteries in Australia: A Matter of Life and Death

By Jo Davenport

Senior Marketing Executive, Australasian Cemeteries and Crematoria Association

More land for cemeteries and more sustainable burial practices will help address Australia’s burial space shortage.

The provision of cemetery grounds and burial space is an important part of the cultural and social expectations within Australian communities. A strategic, coordinated approach to management of the interment industry in Australia is essential to address the critical shortage of burial space and to ensure that a full range of interment options are accessible and affordable to all cultural and religious communities across the country.

The Longevity Revolution: The Need to Develop a Culture of Care

By Ina Voelcker, Louise Plouffe, Silvia M.M. Costa and Alexandre Kalache

International Longevity Centre Brazil

Increasing longevity is one of the benefits of a modern age, but with it comes the responsibility to properly care for our ageing citizens.

Models of Life: A Brief History

By Alan Dorin

Associate Professor, Faculty of Information Technology, Monash University

As has been the case since clay was cutting-edge technology, making representations of life helps us to orient ourselves in an otherwise bewildering universe.

What is life? This question, in its many forms, has perplexed history’s greatest thinkers, and continues to do so despite its apparent simplicity.

What Do We Do Now? Family Members and the Brain Dead

By Dennis Walikainen

Michigan Technological University

When a patient is declared brain dead, what options are available for family members? Who decides his or her fate?

A recent case in California triggered the interest of Syd Johnson, assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan Technological University. Her article, “A Tragic Death and a Fight for Life,” was published in Impact Ethics: Making a Difference in Bioethics. In it, she addresses the California case and the many issues involved in it and similar cases.

If IVF “Success” is Judged on the Number of Live Births, the Figures Don’t Look So Good

By Karin Hammarberg

Senior Research Fellow, Jean Hailes Research Unit, School of Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Monash University

In vitro fertilisation has helped many couples overcome fertility issues but its success rate is much lower than many people realise.

After reading a recent Hard Evidence piece about whether fertility “drops off a cliff” at 35 (, I feel that some hard evidence about the chance of having a baby with IVF is needed. Some of the figures quoted in the article seem overly optimistic – as does reporting on IVF at times – and this may be because it is not clear what the denominator is. For example, the statement that “pregnancy rates are fairly stable (30–35%) for each embryo transferred up to the age of 30, but fall to 20% by 40 and are only 5% by 45” warrants examination.

Safeguards in Assisted Dying Legislation

By Christopher Ryan

Clinical Senior Lecturer, Psychiatry, Westmead Clinical School, The University of Sydney; Centre for Values, Ethics and the Law in Medicine, The University of Sydney

Physician-assisted dying legislation seems inevitable. We all need to try to make it as safe as possible.

The Australian Senate is currently reviewing a piece of proposed legislation that would, if passed, make it possible for a doctor to administer drugs to end the life of a terminally ill patient at a time of their choosing.* Numerous surveys have demonstrated that around 85% of Australians are in favour of legalising physician-assisted dying, and for this reason similar legislation has gone before the parliaments of most Australian states.

Birth Intervention – and Harm – More Likely in Private Hospitals

By Hannah Dahlen and Sally Tracy

Hannah Dahlen is Professor of Midwifery at University of Western Sydney.
Sally Tracy is Professor in Midwifery at University of Sydney.

A study has called into question the belief that higher rates of medical intervention during childbirth in private hospitals is leading to better outcomes.

Australia has high rates of medical and surgical intervention (including caesarean section) during birth, especially in private hospitals.

While these interventions can be harmful if overused, people working in the private sector have argued they’ve resulted in better health for babies. Research we have just published using a large population-based sample shows this is not so.


By Sally Woollett

Editor, Issues

An overview of what's in this edition of Issues.

This edition of Issues is about beginnings and endings: how we feel about the start and finish of life and how we understand what happens in between.

Alan Dorin at Monash University is interested in how we have represented life through the ages to try to clarify our understanding of ourselves – from crude clay approximations to industrial robots. His field of study is artificial life – “the creation and study of technological organisms” – and he explains that whether or not you think something technological is alive is a matter of definition (p.6).