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December 04, 2007



First off, Krauthammer's celebrations aside, the new techniques aren't immediately useable for humans. I'm sure they will be in a few years, but that's just one more delay between where we are and where stem cell research needs to be. I'm not denying it's a triumph - it will eventually be much easier than dealing with veridical embryos. But none of that saves the prohibition of embryonic stem cell research from being a bit bizarre. Fertility clinics already destroy the things en masse, and *that* isn't prohibited, even though it's just a convenience rather than an aid to research. It seems to me that the opposition to embryonic stem-cell research was manufactured to buttress the fabricated intuition that an embryo is morally equivalent to a baby. If the technique gets Krauthammer out of the awkward position of fighting with his Weekly Standard compatriots, good for him, but I don't have such ideological bedfellows to accommodate.

Second, to see Andrew Sullivan as an anti-religious* bigot seems to fly in the face of his (so far as I can tell) very real faith and his conflicted but real love of Catholicism. Sullivan, of course, is very leery of translating religious doctrine directly into political directive, which is why his criticism of stem cell research has always been muted and open to contravention. Meanwhile Sullivan decries Human Rights Campaign for amounting to Democratic satellites. It's worth noting that all of Nathan's cited religious figures generally worked hard not to back particular political factions**.

Huckabee, however, is a former minister of a literalist sect running for office as a Republican. This is a little different.

Ultimately, of course, I think the issue is that Tom doesn't like people substituting arguments from authority for reasons, and since religion can offer that respectable cover, he wants religion out of politics. Though I obviously don't really disagree with him, I think it's hard to draw a fine line between the different sorts of cover out there, and there are plenty of other bad arguments getting cover in other ways. Is religion's interaction with politics particularly bad? It can certainly seem that way, but perhaps we are unfair because our ethical positions are opposed most strongly and comprehensively by religiously-informed people.

*Not exactly what Nathan said, but I'm going to run with it for a moment.

**Sistani does participate in faction politics to some extent, but in many ways that has showcased the more pernicious side of his influence.

Nathan Smith

Maybe it would be more accurate to describe Sullivan as an anti-fundamentalist bigot; or perhaps even that is unfair. But his crazy attempt to create a new political category of "Christianists," supposedly parallel to Islamists, is so wilfully ignorant and deluded that one has to look around for a word strong enough to express adequate disapproval.

The idea that either a person's religion or a person's former profession should disqualify them for political office seems to me to fit oddly with our norms of civic equality. I suppose there might be exceptions. Let me add, by the way, that there is a good reason to be chary of quoting the Bible in politics, which is not the one Tom said. It's not that politics should consist only of a rehearsal of pragmatic reasons without any appeals to authority or expertise or history, but rather that the Bible in particular is a *divisive* intellectual resource, venerated by some but ignored by others. Certainly to quote the Bible on minutiae as an absolute authority would pit fundamentalist Christians against non-Christians and non-literalist Christians. But there is also much in the Bible-- the Ten Commandments, or most of the teachings of Jesus-- that are admired even by many secular people. From the quotes I've heard from Huckabee I can't decide whether he uses the Bible in an acceptable way or not. He seems to skirt the edges of what is appropriate.

Joyless Moralist

I think Nathan has already said the really key thing in this debate: "pragmatic" calculations can give us only means to ends, but in order to decide policy, we also need some ends. For many people -- I daresay a majority in this country -- religious texts and religious leaders help to illuminate what those ends should be. You'd need to work a lot harder to show why there's anything inappropriate about that.

About stem cells. it does seem, from what I've read recently, that this debate can more or less be declared closed. Many people -- including the researcher who first suggested the strategy -- have always found them ethically problematic, and now we can all stop worrying about it because because a replacement has been found that nobody thinks unethical (which, incidentally, happens to be cheaper and easier as well). Few controversies in bioethics come to such a happy conclusion.

But just to illuminate the position a bit. I wouldn't expect to persuade you, but I might help you see why it's not so "bizarre" as you might think. In the first place, there are worries about similarities to cloning, as Nathan mentioned. I won't say much about that because I don't really understand the science very well. But on the subject of embryos... there may be some inconsistency in the Republicans' position here. If it's legal to create and freeze and embryo, and then throw it away, it seems strange to come back and declare that it's a human being with a right to life. Well, if I had a choice, people wouldn't be permitted to create and freeze embryos in the first place. But even if that were somehow too hard to change, I still wouldn't want to use them for medical research.

Consider an analogy. You are in Nazi Germany in WWII. We'll say that you were an important scientist working there before the war broke out, and then you got trapped behind enemy lines. However, due to your reputation and social connections, the Nazis like you, and not only do they agree to leave you unmolested, they also offer to sponsor your continued medical research. When you learn of the creation of the death camps, you strenously object, but they laugh off your ethical views. However, they do make you an offer, and a chance to bring something good out of the situation. *Before* exterminating the prisoners in the death camps, they will allow you to use them for medical experimentation. They make it clear to you that you will only be allowed to experiment on the ones who are already in any case destined for the gas chambers, so no lives will be on your conscience. If you're worried about causing them additional pain, you may elect to use only procedures that don't do this -- so, for example, they'll allow you to peacefully put a person to sleep, then open him up and remove his organs or brain for use in your research. He'll never know what happened. He would have died anyway, likely in a somewhat more horrible way. And the things you discover might be used, after the war, to help countless people recover from diseases and live better lives.

Do you agree? Some might say yes (a good utilitarian presumably would), but I don't think it will seem *bizarre* to most of us that some might also say no. And in fact, the scientist who did agree to these terms would almost certainly be remembered by the public at large as something of a monster, whether or not that characterization would be fair.


Embryos are not people. They have the potential to be people, but so does the food we eat. Embryos do not think, do not feel, do not suffer, so I don't see how it could possibly be as unethical to kill an embryo as to kill a full-grown person. I have bigger ethical problems with the meat and diamond industries that most people seem to enjoy than I do with embryonic research.


JM's scenario is the sort of moral quandary that doesn't come up very often and can certainly be difficult to get one's head around. For one thing, there's a sort of ex hypothesi assumption that the only two options are to experiment and not experiment, while real-world analogues are rarely if ever so cut and dried. If there really was no other choice, and one could somehow reduce harness for good suffering one could truly do nothing to mitigate, then it seems difficult to justify doing otherwise. On the other hand, if there are externalities to one's actions such as there are in the real world, then it might be more worthwhile to avoid legitimizing Nazi actions than to get some modicum of research out of their monstrosity.

When we take morality out of the complicated real world and place it in specialized set pieces, then the answers we get can turn strange. Is that because the ethics are wrong, or because the examples are rigged, like an optical illusion, to confuse one's intuitions?

Joyless Moralist

"Embryos are not people. They have the potential to be people, but so does the food we eat. Embryos do not think, do not feel, do not suffer, so I don't see how it could possibly be as unethical to kill an embryo as to kill a full-grown person."

No. An apple cannot become a person. If it ceases to be an apple, its nutrients can be broken down and made into the component material parts of people, but that's all. An embryo, on the other hand, *will* become a person (this is taking personhood to include rationality, consciousness, etc.) unless we go out of our way to kill it. That is its natural tendency, and most people have the very strong intuition that the embryo and the adult human being are the same entity, only at different stages of life. It is already a human being from conception, and personhood is, at the very least, in its future.

If you want to make personhood the moral property that makes it wrong to kill something, then you have a choice. You may construe personhood to include only things like feeling pain and potential for suffering, in which case human beings probably can be killed in the embryonic stage, but not in the later stages of pregnancy. However, on that same reading, it would be wrong to kill most animals, since cows and chickens can certainly feel pain. If you intensify your understanding of personhood to include things like rationality and capacity for reflection, then the cows can be killed... but so, probably, can babies, at least for the first year or so. It's a pretty unhappy way, I think, to look at the question.

Joyless Moralist

For Nato: I don't think the examples are exactly "rigged." They are designed to isolate a particular intuition that seems particularly relevant to the case. I'm not expecting to convince you for the precise reason Tom brings up -- I know you won't concede that embryos are equivalent to full-grown adults, and so the anaology won't seem to hold. But given a person who *does* think that they have equivalent moral value, this is the sort of thinking that might motivate their opposition to stem cell research. I'm just trying to be helpful, because I know this is one controversy that mystifies many people.


"...most people have the very strong intuition that the embryo and the adult human being are the same entity..."

They do? The same in what sense? Because they have the same DNA? Are two twins the same entity?

Regarding personhood, one can easily make the case that babies are not full people - to some extent we recognize this in law by restricting certain forms of responsibility to those who have reached a certain age. Fortunately recent eras have made it clear that children are not chattel until majority, so we're not confused any more on that count. Now, are infants the same with respect to personhood as cattle? I suppose in some senses they are, though it's also notable that babies don't have to be a year old before they're clearly distinct from baby chimpanzees in cognitive characteristics. At the end of the analysis, however, one ends up with a distinguishing criterion that shares many of the same weaknesses as defining humanity by DNA.

Given how I see humans, of course, there's never going to be a non-arbitrary moment when one can say "Okay, that's a person" any more than one can choose a specific moment (short of a buzz-cut) in which a head transitions to "bald." I have to resort to some other practical measure, and of course I'd generally prefer to be a little generous, since people are pretty important. Fortunately, nature, tradition and cognitive science both recognize a pivotal moment: birth. Until loosed from their umbilical cord by birth, a fetus isn't capable of independent existence. By tradition, we say, "Congratulations, Notional Interlocutor, you're a Father!" at birth, not at conception or at first confirmation of pregnancy. Cognitive science finds a huge and sudden burst of competency acquisition in the first moments after birth and continuing from then on that dwarfs anything in the womb. Of course, some people might place full personhood, say, eight days out, but I think birth is as good a time as any.

So what of cattle, whose capacity for suffering far outstrip a newborn's? Well, they don't ever reach unequivocal personhood, so we don't have to identify an arbitrary line for them.


JM - I'm not responding so much to the individual example as a class of examples intended to show problems in utilitarian moral analysis.

Separately, I have no trouble understanding why folks who equate embryos and people have issues with embryonic stem cell research, but I think their focus on that as opposed to fertility clinics is a bit like getting really exercised not about the Holocaust itself so much as the fact that experiments were performed on some of the condemned. That the outrage about fertility treatments does not seem nearly as cacophonous as that against embryonic stem cell research seems very strange to me.

Nathan Smith

"I have to resort to some other practical measure, and of course I'd generally prefer to be a little generous, since people are pretty important..."

For the same reason, I draw the line at a different place: conception. I'd rather err on the side of saving human lives (if that's what they are) than of conveniencing reluctant mothers.

Nathan Smith

Let me add, by the way, that while my personhood-at-conception position (the tentativeness of which from a philosophical point of view has no political significance as far as I can tell) this is a *moral* position. If someone turned to me for advice, I would advise against abortion even in the case of rape or incest. This isn't to say that it's *not* a political position; in a referendum, I suppose I would vote to make it illegal as well. Underlying this is the crudest of logics: if killing persons is illegal, and embryos and fetuses are persons, then abortion should be illegal. But what if the political spectrum is gravely unfavorable to such a position? What if one lives under a regime where renegade judges have abrogated the democratic rights of the people to decide the issue? Is it incumbent upon us to resort to every form of political manipulation and blackmail, to subordinate every other issue for the end of making abortion illegal? Is that the duty of a Christian?

The problem I have with this is that I don't see how a serious study of the New Testament could fail to engender a profound ambivalence about the very foundations of the state and the coercion. Jesus and the early Christians both taught and lived "turn the other cheek." The great goal of the pro-life camp is to harness the violence of the state on behalf of the abolishing abortion. But Jesus Christ showed not the least sign of wanting to harness the violence of the state for any purpose whatsoever. I make no claim to be a practicing Tolstoyan pacifist. I am no monk. I am a citizen and a patriot, and I am aware of a certain tension between my civic and my Christian identity, which I am not sure how to resolve. But my conscience resists nailing my flag to the mast of the Christian right, because from what I see in the texts of the Bible, and from what I feel I know about the Person of Jesus from my own experience, I just can't see any connection between that Person and the way of coercion. As a citizen, I want to overturn Roe v. Wade, and would prefer to see abortion limited or perhaps banned altogether. But when I look at the matter as a Christian, it is only the struggle against abortion through *moral suasion* that I can, without qualms, endorse.


I suppose one could put the arbitrary line at conception, but I don't understand the motivation to do so. Though we find it permissible to eat cows, we do find their torture morally dubious. I don't know that I've ever heard of anyone worrying about torturing planaria, however, and a blastocyst has demonstrably less consciousness than a flatworm. I can see people motivated to prevent abortion after activity has started in the brain stem (the ninth week or so) - I don't agree, but I have no trouble understanding the motivation to draw the line there. The line between hairy and bald is arbitrary, too, but i don't want to call the "bald" line after the first hair is lost.

Joyless Moralist

"They do? The same in what sense? Because they have the same DNA? Are two twins the same entity?"

I merely said that I think most people have the intuition that the embryo and the adult human being are the same entity. So, for example, if asked, "were you once an embryo?" I think most people would say, "Yes, I guess I was." If asked, "Were you once an apple?" I think they would say, "No." Even if they eat lots of apples. I think that's perhaps revealing of something interesting.

*Why* people have this intuition is a further question... I have a theory, of course, but I don't think it's specifically about DNA.

"That outrage about fertility clinics does not seem nearly as cacophonous as that against embryonic stem cell research seems strange to me."

Well, you might have a point there. I'm not necessarily eager to defend, say, the Republican position as a whole, which certainly might contain some inconsistencies. *I*, at any rate, do object to fertility clinics -- or at least, to some of the procedures that they undertake, certainly including the freezing (and later destroying) of embryos. Why others don't make much of this probably has something to do with political realities (you can't change everything at once, so you have to pick your battles) and something to do with the origins of the conflict. It's sometimes curious how one subject and not another becomes a political battleground.

Anyway, for myself, I'm less concerned about the embryo's current capabilities and more concerned about the *kind* of thing it is -- a *human* kind of thing, with a natural propensity to become a person in the fullest sense of the word. That, in my mind, is what makes it the sort of thing that we shouldn't kill.


In the future, we will be able to synthesize embryos from raw material and using the DNA of stuff like skin cells and hair follicles. We will literally be able to take apples (or at least some of the stuff that's in apples) and make babies. Is that ethically problematic? If it is, why?

Why is it okay to allow menstruation? Shouldn't we try to impregnate every ovum that comes down the tube? If we do nothing to save these potential people, isn't that akin to condoning their fate? If the ovum is not enough to be considered "potential person with rights of a full person", then why should a blastocyst be given that distinction? It really doesn't take much work to turn an ovum into a blastocyst, and the process is so enjoyable, that people do it all the time just for fun. So why not value ova as much as full people? Why not try to save their lives through a clearly enjoyable process? The clear intuition is that ova and sperm are not valuable in themselves. Embryos weren't valued until very very recently. Heck, even babies born with birth defects had no value until very recently. Certainly, ethics and morality have become more fine-grained over the centuries, and now we do value things (and can afford to value them) that ancient man never would have (or could have). But is it really prudent to give the raw materials of man the same rights as man?


"...is it really prudent to give the raw materials of man the same rights as man?"

Well said.

Nathan Smith

Neither JM nor Nato seems to find the fertility clinic/research moral distinction plausible. I'll make at least a tepid defense. If destroying embryos is wrong, you can boycott fertility clinics. Once scientific discoveries are made, they become public goods. It's hard to boycott them, and in a sense, the whole society becomes responsible.

As an analogy, is there a moral difference between (a) not overthrowing Kim Jong Il, even though we know that political prisoners are in slavery in North Korean concentration camps and (b) purchasing products produced by slave laborers in North Korean concentration camps?


I remain a little mystified on how a person could be more upset by someone buying the products of slave labor than one is about the labor itself. Further, buying the products of slave labor directly rewards and encourages enslavement, but it's hard to see stem cell research significantly impacting fertility clinic activity.

Pardon my uncharitable suspicions, but I expect the real reason for the relative lack of outrage is that those who might otherwise orchestrate opposition recognize the public will not warm to telling parents that they can't have a baby because embryos would be destroyed in the process. Then again, perhaps that points a way to drawing a distinction: fertility clinic embryos are the result of gametes that wouldn't have had any potential to reproduce, so they are all bonus potential. Or something like that, but of course, then one is back to facing Tom's scenario in which we have a duty to attempt to fertilize every egg.

Nathan Smith

It's not a question of being more or less upset. It's a question of whether one has condoned something, or been implicated in it somehow, or, worse, if one's life is dependent on its continuation. An eyewitness who fails to report a crime, and a minor accomplice in the crime, may make equal contributions to the crime's success, but we regard the former as merely deficient in civic virtue while the latter is a criminal. This is not an intuition that is very compatible with utilitarianism, but it is a strong intuition.

Joyless Moralist

I just got back from a weekend away and read the remaining posts here. How strange! This is particularly a reaction to Tom's post... where in the world did you get this maximizing idea? Certainly not from me. I didn't say that we need to make as many human lives as possible, and obviously I don't think we have a moral duty to fertilize every egg. In the first place, fertilization is not so simple as you imply -- just tell your little scheme to any of the army of women who've been patronizing the aforementioned fertility clinics, some for years -- but in the second place, you should recall from past conversations that I have lots of views on sexual morality. Obviously I don't think people should set out to conceive at any cost, especially if the cost is fornication or adultery. I'm not a utilitarian, you know.

But in any case, the maximizing scheme is completely missing the point. There's a question of personal identity here. An embryo is not the building blocks of a human being. It *is* a human being, in a very early stage. For heaven's sake, that's what the word 'embryo' MEANS -- a living thing in its early stages. Look at the etymology -- we get the word from the Greek "embryon" which means "young animal." Perhaps fancy scientific procedures could turn an apple skin into a human being, and very often sex can turn a sperm and egg into a human being, but an embryo IS ALREADY a human being, even if it doesn't yet have all the qualities that you want to attribute to a "person."

I would note, too, that pretty much everybody wants to employ some notion of potentiality when they explain which are the beings that it is impermissible to kill. Consciousness and rationality might be the marks of personhood, but I'm not employing them when I'm asleep (at least when I'm not dreaming) or when I've been knocked unconscious. In the latter case, I don't even feel pain. So is it okay to kill me then? Presumably you want to say no; I can't be killed because, even if I'm not displaying person qualities at the that particular time, I'm still the sort of being who can, and will as soon as I wake up. In the case of an embryo, the potentiality is a little further removed, but the idea is the same -- it's the sort of being that can and will display the qualities of personhood, just as soon as it grows a bit more.


"It *is* a human being, in a very early stage. For heaven's sake, that's what the word 'embryo' MEANS -- a living thing in its early stages."

A living *thing* in its early stage. I feel fairly certain that JM does not identify humans with their biology any more than I do. The rest is, I feel, pure asseveration.

"I would note, too, that pretty much everybody wants to employ some notion of potentiality when they explain which are the beings that it is impermissible to kill. Consciousness and rationality might be the marks of personhood, but I'm not employing them when I'm asleep (at least when I'm not dreaming) or when I've been knocked unconscious. In the latter case, I don't even feel pain."

I have often compared consciousness with a dance, so I'll do so again. Some time ago I was at musical event in Atlanta in which local artists performed until midnight, at which time the headliner was to come on. I had been dancing to all the sets, pausing in between to get my breath, but then at midnight the pause lasted longer and longer without the arrival of the headliners. Eventually the organizers announced that a stairwell had collapsed and that the whole event had to be canceled.

At the moment in which the dancing stopped, I, like most, was not dancing, yet most people would have no problem saying that the stairwell collapse stopped the dancing. If the stairwell had collapsed before the first set, however, I think people would find the use of "stop" odd. They would say "prevent." I could also go on to claim an analogy between the impacts, since in the former case it ruined a lot of peoples' nights, while in the latter case people could have gone elsewhere or whathaveyou. I am alive because some other life didn't happen. This further analogy has lot of problems and I don't insist on it but I think it's worth mentioning.

Joyless Moralist

"I feel fairly certain that JM does not identify humans with their biology any more than I do."

Human beings are biological organisms. That description isn't exhaustive, of course, but I take the "more than" to be bound up in the biology in a way that we can't just pick apart at will. (This is an important Christian idea, in fact, and explains why -- in a move that astonished the Greeks -- the Christians affirm the Resurrection of the Body. Of course, in Christian philosophy, the "more than" would be called a soul. But it would be incorrect to identify you exclusively with either your body or your soul. A human being necessarily has both.) An embryo is, as you say, a living thing in its early stages. What sort of living thing is it, if not a human thing? In fact, other animals likewise have embryos, and if you were to distinguish between them, that's exactly what you would say: "That one's a cat embryo, and this one's a human embryo." Both conceptually and linguistically, it is by far the most reasonable to think of an embryo as a human being in its earliest stages.

Obviously I don't expect you to jump on board with the explicitly Christian view, but neither you nor Tom has proposed an adequate solution to the personal identity problem. I assert that the embryo that was in my mother's womb approximately 28 years ago is *the same entity* as the newborn me, the five-year-old me, and the adult me who is presently typing this. That's why it would have been as wrong to kill me then as it is now; at both points I was human, with the potential to think, reason, love, enjoy beauty, etc. The fact that I wasn't actually doing those things 28 years ago shouldn't matter, any more than it should matter whether a person is awake or asleep when you murder them. The crime is just as grevious in either case, because the important thing is not *what the being was doing at the very hour of its death* but rather, what sort of being it was, and what sort of potential it consequently had.

I'm afraid I don't really understand your dancing analogy. You were dancing, and then you stopped. You stopped for breaks in between songs/sets, and the end of the music put an end to the dancing altogether. In a similar way, we tend to be conscious for certain periods with breaks in between, and death puts an end to it (at least for this lifetime.) Fine. But what's that got to do with personal identity and potentiality? I've agreed that the embryo probably isn't conscious in any meaningful way (though fetuses probably are at some point.) But obviously on my view, 'conscious at this precise moment' is not the moral quality that makes it wrong to kill something. Even if you do want to assert that consciousness is the mark of personhood and therefore moral worth, how do you deal with the "breaks" during which the being is not conscious? I suppose you could say that "has been conscious AND will be again" is the necessary quality, but that seems rather ad hoc, don't you think? Why should a particular conjunction of past and future happenings be thing that gives a being moral worth?

And your dancing analogy does show this much: in some cases, we don't know whether or not a particular being will have future consciousness. If we define human beings as beings with both past and future consciousness, this will have the odd result that, in some cases, we ourselves won't actually know if the being lying in the hospital bed is a human being or not. That certainly seems counterintuitive.


"...in some cases, we ourselves won't actually know if the being lying in the hospital bed is a human being or not."

Though there are good reasons to respect the bodies of those who have passed away, I don't think anyone would criticize a soldier who used corpses for cover; the bodies are no longer human beings for the purposes of moral reasoning. Neither, I think, would it outrage many if a decapitated body were taken off life support. When trying to decide if there's a human life in question *in a morally relevant way* the fulcrum of the matter is whether the dance could plausibly resume.

JM's general potentiality discussion deserves a wider response. One more promissory note to add to my tally.

Joyless Moralist

I agree that bodies can be worthy of respect even if they are not persons. (Actually, as a random aside, my husband has recently written a philosophical paper on this topic -- what makes non-personal objects worthy of respect?) What seems funny to me is just the idea that, in certain cases, we might not know whether or not the thing on the bed is a person/human being. Maybe we'd treat it respectfully either way, but it still seems mighty funny not to know.


Missing a lot of distinctions here. For one thing, my hair and skin are also alive and human, and yet it is not murder when I cut my hair or when I exfoliate my skin. So when exactly is a "person" being wronged when a physical action is performed on the body? I cut my hair and am no worse off for it. My hair is dead, on the other hand, but no one weeps for it (except maybe my wife). At what point of physical alteration is a person to be considered murdered? What if we took a living embryo and saved an adult's life with it? Did we kill the embryo-person, or is it still living entwined with the adult's life? Or what if I got into a fatal car accident, but they managed to transplant my heart into someone else's body. Would I technically still be alive? My genetic material would still be living inside someone else, so I would be about as alive as an embryo is. Would it be murder to take out my genetic heart from the patient, kill it, and replace it with a different one?

Another distinction. When you were in your mother's womb, were you an individual, or were you part of your mother? At what point did you become an individual, at conception? Why? What sort of magic takes place that in an instant turns just a piece of genetic material into something that should have the rights of a person? And not just the rights of a person, but rights greater than the rights of the women who are to incubate the genetic material? Why does an embryo deserve rights, and especially rights that trump a woman's right over her own body? Because it's alive and genetically human? That view of things is not only impractical, but also unethical, in my opinion. It devalues what it truly means to be human, and subjugates real people to mere cells.


Beautiful, Tom.

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