Shades of Personhood: A Worry About Definitions of Death for Transplant Purposes

Although brain death, which is an “irreversible cessation of all the functions of the brain, including the brain stem” (see article), has been used as a pretty safe definition of a person’s death, transplant advocates are calling to revive a different definition of death, namely cardiac death or circulatory death, which is “an irreversible cessation of circulation and heartbeat and breathing” (see article).  In such cases, CPR is not performed and after a short wait, organs are removed.  However, the problem is that there is no guarantee that the heart won’t restart by itself, so the question of how long to wait becomes a tricky one.  Some hospitals wait five minutes while others only two.  The trouble with waiting too long is that organs cut off from a nourishing blood supply cannot last very long.  Surgeons in Michigan are starting to place donors on ECMOs (heart-lung machines) even before the donor’s heart stops beating.  This ensures that the organs are not deprived of nourishment, but it also further blurs the line between life and death.

The Michigan doctors say the approach is a blessing. Family members have more time to say goodbye and a chance at getting some solace from their loss.  “They are so pleased that the last act of the person’s life on Earth was to donate organs and save other people’s lives,” Punch said.  Transplant surgeons say the chance to turn a death into an opportunity for life is a godsend. (See article)

Defining death is not as straight forward as it might seem.  Of course, there are certainly clear cut cases.  Taking a stroll through a cemetery reveals hundreds such cases.  However, the moment that marks the exact boundary between life and death is much harder to define.  Perhaps this is because there is no such moment, death being a process of a certain duration.  Technological advancements such as ECMOs, however, can extend this process far beyond the short period it would normally take.  Are such patients essentially in a state of dying, but not really dead or are they essentially alive due to the fact that the process of dying had been interrupted by the machines?

Just because machines are doing the breathing does not mean that the person is dead.  By that definition, artificial hearts or pace makers would make the people who have them into walking corpses.  Also, just because someone is in a coma, does not mean that they are ready to be harvested for organs.  Perhaps an argument for the practice of recirculating blood in order to keep organs nourished hangs on the irreversibility of the donor’s condition.  But again, not only is “irreversibility” not a certainty in all cases, but irreversibility itself does not seem to be reason enough to harvest organs from a living human being.  We don’t generally think that extracting organs from patients in permanent vegetative states is permissible, even if such states are by definition irreversible and if such patients happen to be organ donors.

This is certainly a tricky question, especially since the patients involved are donors who have agreed to donate their organs after they die, but unless their advance directives state that organs are to be extracted while alive as long as it happens at the discretion of the doctors or family, the problem with the definition of death will continue to be an issue.  Citing the number of lives that can be saved by the practice of extracting organs from a living person (even if irreversibly damaged), should not be used as an argument for such a practice particularly since the same argument can apply to extracting organs from any living person (I have in mind the classic objection to utilitarianism here).

I am not entertaining slippery slope worries, but I think that it is important to stress that the subtle details regarding our practices of extracting organs for transplantation should be thoughtfully considered, reasoned through, and explained.  One moral worry I have is that such patients may not be viewed as persons by doctors eagerly waiting to extract vital organs in order to save the lives of other (more obvious?) persons.  Can what the Michigan doctors are doing be done with a genuine air of respect and dignity that is owed to persons?  Perhaps it can, but the reasons for such practices must reflect this respect and dignity.  I am simply not convinced that, at least in all cases, merely focusing on what the family and other patients get out of it constitutes reasons that are saturated with genuine respect for the personhood of the donor.

What Sorts of People Should There Be? Do the Deceased Qualify?

When the Social Security Act was being written by Congress in 1939, no one thought that it might be possible to conceive a child posthumously.  In 2003, 18 months after the death of her husband, Karen Capato, a Florida resident, gave birth to his (her husband’s) twins (see article).  Robert, Karen’s husband, preserved his sperm in a sperm bank and gave written consent for its use by his wife before he died.

After her husband’s death, Karen applied for social security survivor benefits for the twins, but was denied because Florida laws recognize the eligibility of inheriting property only if the children who are to inherit property are named in a last will and testament.  This apparently also translates into an ineligibility of the twins to receive survivor benefits.  Robert could not have written the twins into his will because he did not know that they were going to exist at some point in the future.  Regardless of whether or not he discussed possibilities with his wife, he had no way of knowing the genders or the number of children he would father posthumously.

There is, to my mind, a question of whether Karen’s twins can really be called “survivors” since they did not literally survive their father.  And since it was Karen’s own choice to have them after her husband was already dead, perhaps counting on survivor benefits for aid was a tad premature and maybe even irresponsible.  These worries aside, however, it is interesting to live at a time when technological advances create such problems for the legal system.  After all, there is no question regarding biological parentage in this case.  Half of Robert’s DNA had been willingly transferred to a future generation.

While thinking about what sorts of people there should be, we think in terms of human variation.  However, we don’t always stop to consider why a variety of humans are “people” in the first place and what exactly makes them into “people.”  It would be difficult (and likely hopelessly so) to argue that a sperm cell is a person.  And yet, at the time of conception, that was all that remained of Robert.  I would think that it would be absurd to insist that Karen’s twins are essentially fatherless (it is true that their father is dead, but it is not the case that they have not been fathered).  It would be equally absurd to think of the doctors who prepared the fertilized egg as fathers (the medical team has no parental responsibilities toward the twins).  Although the twins were not a result of sexual intercourse between Robert and Karen, their conception is an instance of sexual reproduction (Robert’s and Karen’s genetic material is present in equal proportions in the resulting offspring).  So when asked who their parents are, the twins should refer to Robert and Karen and not just Karen or Karen and the hospital staff or even more absurdly to Karen and Robert’s sperm.  So did Robert father the twins?  I’d say he did!  If that’s the case, then does he qualify to be represented under the general question of what sorts of “people” there should be?  When we think about human variation, do the dead count?  I think they do!  If, by recognizing all kinds of people as “people,” we implicitly assume that we have duties toward them, then by making conceptual space for Robert and other deceased individuals (this also includes all of us at some point), we ought to recognize our duties toward the dead.  Perhaps that should inform the court’s decision in the case of the twins even if they are not literally “survivors.”

Haraway and the (Im)possibility of Cyborg Eugenics – Presentation by Joshua St. Pierre

Last week, on March 23, 2012, Joshua St. Pierre, one of the summer interns from the Living Archives Project who is currently working on his MA in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, gave a presentation entitled, “Haraway and the (Im)possibility of Cyborg Eugenics.”

His abstract from the conference is as follows:

While the discourse of so-called “new eugenics” is becoming increasingly popular in cyberculture, I argue that new eugenics is discussed as a mere technological overlay of pre-existing eugenic ideologies, ideologies undercut by “A Cyborg Manifesto.” Donna Haraway’s cyborg resists the natural and essential properties (racial, class or genetic purity, normalized categories such as “feeble mindedness,” or binaries like primitive/civilized) which made twentieth century eugenic programs, and by extension new eugenics, possible. However, Haraway’s politically and eugenically resilient cyborg opens the possibility for a “cyborg eugenics” proper.

Instead of essential properties, Haraway argues that human diversity and biotic components must be conceived of in terms of “design, boundary constraints, rates of flow, systems logics, costs of lowering constraints” (162). Thus, the Harawaian cyborg translates the modern concepts of ‘eugenics’ and ‘perfection’ to the concepts of ‘population control’ and ‘optimization’ (161).  While the terms ‘optimal’ and ‘population control’ lack the totalizing ideological overtones of a “master race” or the “feeble minded,” such categories force the choice of what sorts of people there should be, fragmented or not, and therefore what sorts of people there should not be.

Paralleling Hannah Arendt’s account of the banal holocaust logistician Adolf Eichmann, I argue that cyborg eugenics arise indirectly from the non-reflective fixation of the cyborg on optimizing technical problems. The Harawaian cyborg thus resists forms of eugenics rooted in claims of nature, telos or purity, but is seemingly unaware of the dark eugenic possibilities latent in the language of instrumentalization and optimization.

 It was a very interesting presentation, that provided a lot to think about in terms of the role of eugenics as modern technology evolves and becomes incorporated in the human, and the role of eugenics in posthuman literature.

The Unhealthy Side Effects of Mixing Medicare with Big Business

Cancer drug shortages in the United States are putting lives at risk, especially when treatments require regular dosages over extended periods of time.  Alice Park of Time Magazine writes:

In late February, when Divers called the hospital to confirm Alyssa’s upcoming chemotherapy treatment, the nurse informed her that there was a drug shortage. The hospital couldn’t be sure that there would be enough methotrexate — the cornerstone of therapy for some childhood cancers, including leukemia and osteosarcoma — to treat Alyssa, now 10. Divers was told she might have to reschedule the session; the hospital would let her know. “It made me sick to my stomach to hear that,” says Divers, a former chaplain from Palmyra, Va. “Alyssa was in treatment for over a year already, and the last thing you want to do is add unnecessary delays in treatment, which gives the cancer a chance to catch up.” Divers explains that her daughter’s cancer doubles in tumor load every 34 days, “so you need to hit it again and again to eradicate it.” (See article)

And this is just one of the many cases.  But what is causing these shortages?  Although this is not the whole story (since the big picture is a bit more complicated, including procedural issues with FDA inspections), a substantial portion of the problem is caused by the economics of drug supply.  One thread of the economic story goes something like this: in order to make chemotherapy treatments easier for patients, doctors began offering infusions in their offices rather than in hospitals.  The 2005 reimbursement scheme, however, allowed doctors to be reimbursed at a 6% profit.  The problem was that the reimbursement price lagged behind the market prices by six months, which made the reimbursements lower than what the doctors paid for the drug, essentially pushing some physicians to prescribe pricier brand name drugs.  This, in turn, amounted in lower orders of generic drugs, which further shrank the market.

“In order to gain market share, companies underbid the market to get the business, and it’s a race to the bottom,” says Dr. Len Lichtenfeld, deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. “Whoever is the last company standing can’t charge enough to make a profit on the drug and to make needed investments to keep making the drug.” That’s what may have happened with the methotrexate that Alyssa Divers depends on. (See article)

To add to this incredible situation, once the drug shortages were publicized, doctors started receiving offers from distributors, with stockpiled stashes of the harder to get drugs, who were very happy to sell the medicines, charging “$800 to $900 per gram for a medication that normally costs $16” (see article).

I guess that one way to respond to this is to blame the government for its untimely reimbursement policy, which certainly makes me wonder (why is there a six month lag in the first place?).  What really puts a bad taste in my mouth, however, is how intimately the production of pharmaceuticals is linked to the administration of treatments that use certain drugs.  When a profession views itself as essentially helping humankind by caring for human well being and health and when the societal respect is accorded to this profession for such reasons, it is more than disheartening to find out how closely some such professionals can resemble mere pedlars of life when viewed in light of their business connections to pharmaceutical companies (which seem to have no moral qualms about charging 56 times the market worth of a life-saving medicine).

Tommy Douglas, young eugenicist

from The National Post, by Michael Shevell

This NP article is itself taken from a longer article in the January 2012 issue of the Canadian Journal of Neurological Sciences.

Though bespectacled and slight of build, Tommy Douglas is a giant of 20th Century Canadian history. His iconic, indeed mythic, status within the Canadian historical landscape is exemplified by his selection, in 2004, as “The Greatest Canadian” in a CBC-mandated competition above such luminaries as former Prime Ministers Pierre Elliot Trudeau and Lester Bowles Pearson, scientist Frederick Banting, and hockey great Wayne Gretzky. This honour reflects Douglas’ role as the “father” of Canadian Medicare, which has emerged, for better or worse, as a defining feature of a Canadian national identity.

Medicare has in effect emerged as a statement of national values. Values that include compassion, fairness, tolerance and equality; values that are not selectively applied, but are extended to embrace even the most vulnerable of Canadians.

Eugenics, by contrast, concerns itself at its most fundamental level with the selective breeding of humanity to improve the human species. At a practical level, eugenics in the 20th century involved the removal from the gene pool by various means those classes of individuals considered “inferior stock,” whose deficits had an inherited basis that was immutable for future generations. These classes included those suffering from mental illness, intellectual disability or what was characterized as social diseases (e.g, alcoholism, delinquency).

The broad principles of universal-access medicare contradict those that can be utilized to justify the practice of eugenics. It would be paradoxical for an individual to support both. Yet Tommy Douglas did so with moral persuasion. Careful analysis of this contradiction reveals with hindsight further paradoxes that merit consideration. … read more

CCD Calls on Global to Stage Follow-up Episode

Recently, Dick Sobsey wrote about the Live Euthanasia Debate airing on Global Television’s 16 x 9 program.

The show, “Taking Mercy”, also featured a Live Blog including comments from several members of the What Sorts Network.

Alex Schadenberg, Executive Director with the Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, wrote a post condemning the one-sidedness of the show and comparing the “propaganda” in the 16 x 9 episode with the eugenic attitudes that led to the Nazi euthanasia program.

The Council of Canadians with Disabilities has also responded to the lack of an opposing perspective in the so called “debate”. The CCD is challenging Global to stage a follow-up episode.

We are challenging Global, in the name of journalistic balance, to stage a follow-up episode featuring persons with disabilities who want to live and who see a danger in opening up the debate on euthanasia. Only good can come from providing an opportunity for a broader, fairer public discourse.

If you agree that the perspective of those opposed to euthanasia should be represented in a follow-up episode, please take a minute to write to Global representatives at the addresses listed in CCD’s response to “Taking Mercy”.

Rick Santorum and prenatal screening

For those that missed the controversy, towards the end of February Rick Santorum (current candidate for the Republican presidential leadership bid) argued that,  ” a lot of prenatal tests are done to identify deformities in utero, and the customary procedure is to encourage abortions.” His argument was roughly as follows: since prenatal screening leads to an increase in abortions, and since abortion is morally reprehensible, the morality of prenatal screening should also be considered. He was also, however, making the point that prenatal screening leads to a new form of eugenics — one that targets a fetus which exhibits abnormalities and deformities which are deemed undesirable. These arguments set off a firestorm of controversy.

Emily Rapp wrote a reply, “Rick Santorum, Meet my Son”, in which she claims that if she had determined that her son would have been born with Tay-Sachs (as he was), that she would have chose to abort her fetus.

 If I had known Ronan had Tay-Sachs (I met with two genetic counselors and had every standard prenatal test available to me, including the one for Tay-Sachs, which did not detect my rare mutation, and therefore I waived the test at my CVS procedure), I would have found out what the disease meant for my then unborn child; I would have talked to parents who are raising (and burying) children with this disease, and then I would have had an abortion. Without question and without regret, although this would have been a different kind of loss to mourn and would by no means have been a cavalier or uncomplicated, heartless decision.

But it seems like both sides are talking passed each-other a bit here. It seems necessary to recognize the potential dangers for a form of newgenics — something that can be informed by our understanding of the history of eugenics, and the ways in which new technologies can reassert these tendencies. But it also seems necessary to recognize the potential value of pre-natal screening technologies, and to recognize the very real pain that diseases like Tay-Sachs impart on the child.

The DSM Drama (“Part V”)

Dr. Stefan P. Kruszewski, in an opinion piece written for ABC News entitled “Doctors’ Conflicting Interests Can Cost Money and Lives, and Hinder Medical Discoveries,” warns against the danger of medical practitioners recommending specific drugs as part of treatment while being paid to speak, advocate, and do research for the companies that manufacture them.

After writing a letter expressing concerns about such practices to the Journal of American Medical Association, the associate editor responded (via e-mail) by shrugging such concerns off as trivial.

During the review process, an associate editor at the journal asked the question (and inadvertently copied me on an email that had been sent to another associate editor), “What’s the big deal? What’s all this [expletive deleted] about conflicts of interest?” (see link)

Kruszewski, however, thinks such practices are actually very dangerous.  He writes:

But I do worry, because drug promotion and clinical decision-making that are brokered on the backs of dollar bills have a greater chance of causing serious adverse outcomes, including illnesses and death. If a physician embellishes the effectiveness of a drug or minimizes its risk, that directly hurts you and me.  Physicians who are heavily supported by pharmaceutical companies and medical device makers are not forming independent, unbiased decisions. Instead, their brains have been lined with gifts, perks and money, which influences their rose-colored opinions. (see link)

The conflict of interest does not stop at Dr. Kruszewski’s worries and the problem he points to can unfortunately be traced to the DSM (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual), which is an authoritative taxonomy of mental disorders.  Worries of financial conflicts plagued the fourth installment of the DSM (the DSM IV) and with the DSM V on the horizon, similar criticisms are voiced.

The manual, published by the American Psychiatric Association, details the diagnostic criteria for each and every psychiatric disorder, many of which have pharmacological treatments. After the 1994 release of DSM-4, the APA instituted a policy requiring expert advisors to disclose drug industry ties. But the move toward transparency did little to cut down on conflicts, with nearly 70 percent of DSM-5 task force members reporting financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies — up from 57 percent for DSM-4. (see link)

The greatest risk of conflict of interest remains with the taxonomizing and eventual diagnosing of disorders that are intimately linked with the manufacturing of drugs intended to treat these disorders.  Katie Moisse writes:

Some of most conflicted panels are those for which drugs represent the first line of treatment, with two-thirds of the mood disorders panel, 83 percent of the psychotic disorders panel and 100 percent of the sleep disorders panel disclosing “ties to the pharmaceutical companies that manufacture the medications used to treat these disorders or to companies that service the pharmaceutical industry,” according to the study. (see link)

This is not to suggest, of course, that medical professionals have malicious intent or that they are only interested in the health of their own bank accounts.  However, there remains a serious worry about the taxonomy itself as well as about future diagnoses and treatment.  To add to the turbulent atmosphere surrounding the DSM V, the introduction of certain new diagnoses has also been criticized.

The DSM-5 has also drawn criticism for introducing new diagnoses that some experts argue lack scientific evidence. Dr. Allen Frances, who chaired the revisions committee for DSM-4, said the new additions would “radically and recklessly” expand the boundaries of psychiatry.  “They’re at the boundary of normality,” said Frances, who is professor emeritus of psychiatry at Duke University. “And these days, most diagnostic decisions are not made by psychiatrists trained to distinguish between the two. Most are made by primary care doctors who see a patient for about seven minutes and write a prescription.” (see link)

I think we have a serious problem on our hands if drug companies get to determine the taxonomy of mental disorders and medical doctors diagnose and prescribe drugs in accordance with the financial interests of these drug manufacturers.  Even if things are not as bad as they sound, they seem to be getting worse (“with nearly 70 percent of DSM-5 task force members reporting financial relationships with pharmaceutical companies — up from 57 percent for DSM-4”).  Should we start going to the accountants of pharmaceutical companies for advice?  Now that would be absurd, but if pharmaceutical companies have as much sway over what is defined as a mental disorder and what treatment is pursued as Moisse suggests, then perhaps we might as well just bypass the middleman (the local mental health professional) and go directly to the source!  Why are individuals who are directly funded by drug manufacturers allowed to make executive decisions on the DSM V?  James Scully, APA director, sees no other way.

APA medical director and CEO Dr. James Scully insisted the DSM-5 development process “is the most open and transparent of any previous edition of the DSM.”  “We wanted to include a wide variety of scientists and researchers with a range of expertise and viewpoints in the DSM-5 process. Excluding everyone with direct or indirect funding from the industry would unreasonably limit the participation of leading mental health experts in the DSM-5 development process,” he said in a statement. (see link)

Lisa Cosgrove, associate professor of clinical psychology at the University of Massachusetts-Boston is of a different opinion:

Cosgrove said she believes there are plenty mental health professionals with no financial ties to drug companies. If necessary, experts with conflicts could still participate in the process as non-voting advisors, she said.  “My best hope would be for the APA to respond in a substantive way to the concerns we’ve raised,” she said. “They have an opportunity here to make a correction that would give the appearance, if not the reality of developing a diagnostic instrument that’s objective and has integrity.” (see link)

I hardly think that the mental health professionals with no financial ties to drug companies live at or just above the poverty line, so why, unless a researcher is explicitly doing research for a certain pharmaceutical company, does the profession open itself to such criticisms by allowing the kinds of practices Kruszewski and Cosgrove object to?

Eugenic Reasoning in Legal Phrasing?

Argentina’s strict anti-abortion laws got a minor make-over recently, as the Supreme Court of Argentina has ruled that rape victims will not be persecuted for having abortions.  The supreme court unanimously backed the decision of allowing a 15-year-old girl, who endured years of sexual abuse by her stepfather, to terminate her pregnancy.  “However, the judges said that their decision was not part of a discussion about the legalisation of abortion in Argentina, but just a clarification of existing laws” (see article).

The controversy was centred around Section 2, Article 86 of the Argentine penal code, which states that “abortion is not a punishable act ‘if the pregnancy stems from a rape or an attack on the modesty of a woman of feeble mind’” (see article).  The horrible suffering of the poor 15-year old aside, it is interesting to note that the Argentinian law’s phrasing includes “feeble mindedness” in its allowances for legal abortions.  Curiously (and I think quite tellingly), the point of debate in interpreting the law had to do with whether or not all rape victims or just those who are deemed “feeble minded” should be allowed to terminate their pregnancies.

Now, putting the phrase “feeble minded” in the sentence cannot have anything to do with informed consent (and the fact that some individuals might be deemed incapable of giving it) since the law pertains to rape cases, which, by their very definition, are instances where neither informed nor any other kind of consent can or ever is given.  What might be the reason the phrase “feeble minded” made its way into the sentence and why might it be unclear to those interpreting the law whether or not it covered all or just “feeble minded” rape victims?  If I were to venture a guess, I would say that eugenic reasoning is likely responsible for the legal phrasing the judges had such difficulty interpreting.

Canada’s Live Euthanasia Debate Tonight

15 March 2011 Tonight from 8 to Midnight Eastern Time Global News is hosting a live blog on whether it is a good idea for parents to be permitted to kill their children who have severe disabilities. The three-person panel that they have assembled for this are all advocates for euthanasia of people with severe disabilities, including convicted murderer Robert Latimer. Please consider taking part in this, and if you think killing people with disabilities is a bad idea, please say so. Also please let others who care about this issue know about this.  Global’s information about this “Taking Mercy” event can be found here. This debate directly will address the question of “What Sorts of People Should there Be?”

Chromosome 18 Registry & Research Society

Thanks to Velvet Martin who has informed us of Chromosome 18, an organization dedicated to the advocacy of individuals with chromosome 18 abnormalities in an effort to help them “overcome the obstacles they face so they might lead happy, healthy and productive lives.”

More information on the organization can be found at their website. And here’s a video introducing the registry.

Call for submissions to a special issue of Disability Studies Quarterly (DSQ)

Improving Feminist Philosophy and Theory by Taking Account of Disability
Guest editor: Shelley Tremain, PhD

Submissions should be no more than 8,000 words in length, inclusive of notes and bibliography, and should be prepared for anonymous peer review, with no identifying elements in the text or reference material, and accompanied by an abstract of 200 words.  Submissions and all inquiries about the issue should be sent to Shelley Tremain at: s.tremain@yahoo.ca with the subject line “DSQ  FEMDIS”.

DEADLINE FOR SUBMISSIONS: September 1, 2012.
NOTIFICATION OF ACCEPTANCES: on or before November 30, 2012.
DATE OF PUBLICATION: Projected for late 2013.

A growing body of literature demonstrates that disabled people confront poverty, discrimination in employment and housing, sexual violence, limited educational opportunities, incarceration, and social isolation to a far greater extent than their non-disabled counterparts and furthermore that disabled women experience the impact of these disabling social and political phenomena even more severely than do disabled men.  Although feminism is purported to be a social, political, and cultural movement that represents all women, disabled feminists have long argued that the concerns, political struggles, and socio-cultural issues that directly affect disabled women (and disabled people more generally) remain marginalized, and often ignored, within mainstream feminist movements.

Feminist theorists and researchers in the university produce and reproduce this marginalization and exclusion through a variety of mechanisms, one of which is Continue reading

A Prequel to Gattaca?

The 1997 film Gattaca, written and directed by Andrew Niccol, portrays a futuristic society where babies are genetically engineered according to parental references.  The film features a society that consists almost exclusively of such artificially built individuals, with those who are born in the archaic, natural manner occupying the fringes of this society.  In order to protect the rights of what are referred to as the “valids” and thereby keep out the inferior “invalids,” each individual’s genetic material is constantly sampled and monitored.  Every person’s DNA is stored in a database, making multiple scans and random genetic sweeps in the workplace very efficient.  The story follows an “invalid” who has a dream of becoming an astronaut, a job open only to the genetically enhanced elite.

But my intention here is not to provide a synopsis of the film, which is very good and is certainly well worth the time it takes to watch.  Rather, I wanted to Continue reading

Sweden Moves to End Forced Sterilization of Transgender People

Sweden, “one of 17 [countries] in the European Union,” may soon change a law that requires transgendered people to become sexually sterilized if they decide to officially change gender.  Sweden has made moves to repeal the law in January, only to be stopped by the Christian Democrat Party.  However, this party has recently changed their mind, allowing the repeal to go through.

http://motherjones.com/mojo/2012/02/sweden-moves-to-end-forced-sterilization-transgender-people

This move was partially in thanks to an online petition, by AllOut (http://allout.org/en/actions/stop_forced_sterilization), which gained 80,000 international signatures to repeal the law.  However, the date for repealing the law is still pending.

Countries that still require sterilization include France, Italy, Romania, Poland, Greece, and Portugal.  For a map outlining the current status of European sterilization, you can link here: http://motherjones.com/mojo/2012/02/most-european-countries-force-sterilization-transgender-people-map

Parent Bullies: Homophobic Parents Protest Making Schools Safe for ‘Gay’ Kids

The Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District 11, located just north of Minneapolis, changed its policy of neutrality regarding questions of sexual orientation in favour of active affirmation of the dignity of all students regardless of their race, disability, or sexual orientation.  The New York Times reports:

 In response to conflicting pressures, Anoka-Hennepin officials had devised an unusual policy, directing teachers to remain neutral on any questions involving sexual orientation. But some teachers said that this hampered their ability to support gay students and that the overall climate was still hostile.  Last month, the district rescinded the neutrality policy in favor of a requirement to “affirm the dignity and self-worth of students” regardless of race, sexual orientation, disabilities or other factors. In addition, according to the new agreement, the district will strengthen measures to prevent, detect and punish bullying based on gender or sexual orientation, hire a full-time “harassment-prevention” official, bolster mental health counseling and identify harassment “hot spots” on the campuses of middle and high schools.

However, the Anoka-Hennepin Parents Action League (see their website here) complained that  “[m]aking schools safe for ‘gay’ kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda” (see The New York Times).  The Parents Action League website states that

Teaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations.

Two things are quite striking here and both are examples of narrow-minded groups making students worse off by making themselves vocal.  First, and most obviously, the reported statement that “[m]aking schools safe for ‘gay’ kids means indoctrinating impressionable, young minds with homosexual propaganda” is outrageous in itself especially since it implies that what I take to mean the majority (that is, the heterosexual kids) are better served if ‘gay’ kids are not protected from bullying.  I am not sure whether the parents who agreed on such a formulation in their e-mail were appealing to some seriously misguided utilitarian calculation or whether they were just expressing their support for bullying based on sexual orientation?  Either way, the statement represents an unusually ugly thought!

Second, the statement on the Parents Action League website is a further testament to the dangers of giving narrow minded and aggressively fearful groups power over the education of future generations.  Statements like: “[t]eaching about sexual orientation is not a part of the District adopted curriculum; rather, such matters are best addressed within individual family homes, churches, or community organizations” is reminiscent of burning the “Satanic” Harry Potter Books (see the 2001 BBC News Story).  All such practices will do (practices of withdrawing educational content from the curriculum and relegating it to the home), and I imagine that this is the hope of the Parents Action League, is to perpetuate discrimination based on sexual orientation precisely because homophobic parents seem to want to shield their children from any statements that confer dignity and self-worth upon homosexual students.

Parents should certainly play a greater supportive role in their children’s education.  Having had teaching experience at the secondary education level, I have seen my share of too much resentment toward teachers for the low achievement of their child and too little active participation in the child’s education.  Of course, this is not descriptive of all, or even most, parents.  However, participation in a child’s education should not come in the form of lobbying to truncate the educational experience of students.  If schools are to teach only the core subjects (math, social, science, and english), and remain silent (since being neutral in this context just means staying silent) on all other issues, then the quality of citizens leaving the school system will be poor indeed.

Fortunately, the Anoka-Hennepin Independent School District 11 went ahead with its new policy.  Perhaps once they eradicate bullying based on sexual orientation in their hallways, they will start to fight the source of bullying, namely the opinions and beliefs of homophobic parents!

Erotica For Everybody?

It would seem that erotic images really do sell and that they infiltrate our society from all directions.  Aside from the obvious venues for erotic images and films, pictures of handsome individuals in provocative poses are plastered all over our cities and flashed, it would seem, at every conceivable opportunity both on the internet and on television.  However, images are for those who can see, which means that a substantial population is “spared” this constant barrage of depictions.  Questions of morality aside, pornography sells!  In fact, Lisa J. Murphy’s Tactile Mind is one example of how erotic imagery continues to fill newer and more numerous social niches.  Murphy’s Tactile Mind is “a handmade thermoform book consisting of 17, 3-D tactile photographs on white thermoform plastic pages with the visual image and descriptive Braille accompaniment” (see website).  The book is sold for an extravagant $225, but single pages can also be purchased for $25 a page.  Another example of such “niche-filling” is “Porn for the Blind,” which is

a website which purports to offer sexual stimuli for blind people over the internet.  The website is composed of a white background with a list of links to mp3 sound clips of pornographic content contributed by volunteers.  A ‘translator’ will watch preview clips of videos and give a play-by-play of the events.  Contributors are not allowed to use sexual words when describing existing videos and must give purely clinical descriptions of the events. (see citation)

Although, on the one hand, it might be argued that erotic images are inappropriate even in socially sanctioned contexts, it does seem a bit paternalistic to do those who can only read braille a moral favour by denying them access to erotic material.  From my understanding, the two examples I provided above are quite censored as it is.  The images in Murphy’s book lack faces and are featured only in single poses while the mp3 descriptive recordings do not use sexual words in their descriptions.

There is certainly a debate over the appropriateness of pornography (see Natalie Purcell’s “Feminism and Pornography: Building Sensitive Research and Analytic Approaches”), but at least now it’s everybody’s discussion!

Ethicist gets hate mail

A Melbourne academic has triggered an ethical storm by suggesting it is acceptable to kill newborns in so-called after-birth abortions if parents do not want them.

Ethicist Francesca Minerva said yesterday that she had received hate mail since a provocative article she co-wrote with Dr Alberto Giubilini appeared online.

They argued after-birth abortion should be allowed in cases when abortion would be permitted, including if a child had a defect such as Down syndrome.

Even in cases where the baby was born perfectly healthy, parents should have the right to end the life of the child if their own wellbeing was at risk.

The researchers said a newborn baby and a foetus were “morally equivalent” and both were “potential people”.

“If criteria such as the social, psychological and economic costs for potential parents are good enough reasons for having an abortion even when the foetus is healthy…then the same reasons which justify abortion should also justify the killing of the potential person when it is as the stage of a newborn, they said.

Adopting out an unwanted baby was not necessarily a solution because the mother might suffer psychological distress from giving up her child for adoption.

Dr Minerva said the article was not intended for public debate but rather for discussion among bioethicists.

“This debate has been going on for 30 years,” she said.

The BMJ Group said the researchers had been subjected to personal abuse, including threats to their lives.

It said the concept of infanticide was not new and the researchers had made an argument that deserved to be heard without receiving hostile abuse.
Catholic Respect Life executive officer Bronia Karniewicz said the argument that killing a healthy baby rather than putting them up for adoption because it might better benefit the parents was disturbing.

the article can be found here: http://au.news.yahoo.com/thewest/a/-/wa/13056055/ethicist-gets-hate-mail/