Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Canadian Governor General reveals Taste for Seal Hearts

I'm sure most people outside Canada (and probably very many inside the country) have missed the country's Governor General's latest shenanigans. During her latest venture into an indigenous Canadian Inuits territory she duly helped herself to bits and pieces of a seal's heart that she gobbled down raw. In the words of The Toronto Star newspaper:[she] "revelled in helping herself to the heart of the dripping carcass". More than that, "Jean helped to gut the seal before swallowing a slice of the mammal's heart, ignoring the European Union vote earlier this month to impose a ban on seal products on grounds the seal hunt is cruel." All of that is probably only slightly more barbaric than our daily mass slaughter of other animals that we breed in mass breeding factories. The Governor General's defense of this "ancient" Inuit practice goes like this: "These are ancient practices that are part of a way of life," Jean said, framing her gutsy gesture as an act of solidarity with the Inuit. "If you can't understand that, you're completely missing the reality of life here." That is so funny, really.

I mean, for starters, what does an exceedingly well-paid governor general really know about the daily lives of Inuit people? Surely nothing first-hand. Further, what if the Inuit had another "ancient practice", say, eating 5 year old kids alive (I know they're not doing that, stay with me!). If the governor general's view is that the slaughter of seals is acceptable because it has been done for such a long time, it would follow that - all other things being equal - any number of other things that are traditionally done are justifiable on the grounds that they have always been done. This is a pretty conservative take on the world. It seems to suggest essentially that she does not believe the Inuit are able to evolve beyond their ancient practices, and that for that reason we should respect whatever it is that anciently they happen to do. - Mind you, another argument that I have seen is, is that there's no other way for these folks to feed themselves. Well, perhaps the Canadian government should consider offering sensible job alternatives to the people in question instead of celebrating their barbaric "ancient times" activities.

My problem with the Governor General's take is essentially that it is disrespectful of the Inuit, because it does not take them seriously as citizens in the same way that other citizens are being taken seriously. Being taken seriously means not only to be respected in important ways, but also to be held accountable for what one does. If Canada has laws in place that prohibit cruelty to sentient animals it will hold those of its citizens accountable that commit such acts of cruelty... that is, unless they're Inuit, in which case the country's Governor General joins in the fun. The bizarre reason for this is that the cruelty in question is one enjoyed since "ancient times", hence it's kinda cool. Ethical rationales therefore clearly do not apply to Canada's indigenous people, at least that seems to be the Governor General's logic. What does this tell us about respect for indigenous peoples?

What I also find odd about the ongoing public discussion about this (well, discussion in the news media) is that the issue is presented as one of liberal city talking heads (me) vs the romanticised ancient Inuits. Well, even if that divide was as clear-cut, the question remains whether treating animals in such a manner is acceptable, ancient or no... adding labels to folks (aka liberal city based talking head) begs this question.

Enough said.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Violent assault on espresso connoisseurs

Oh horror, the Dutch company Philips, maker of those both ubiquituous and horrendous 'espresso' machines relying on 'coffee pods' has bought Saeco the Italian maker of espresso machines.

I don't care strongly about Saeco as they also sell automatic coffee machines, ie coffee makers where you put your cup in, push a button and it does everything including the cappuccino foam. Pretty gross cappuccino by any stretch of imagination!

However, and here it gets really really serious, this means that Philips now also owns Gaggia, the Italian brand owned by Saeco. Just look at Gaggia's Classic (not coincidentally: I own one of these beauties) and ask yourself how such a brand will fare under the control of a company that probably invented 'coffee pods' and dumped them in uncountable hotel rooms as well as kitchens of people who should know better. A dark day indeed.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

'God' motivated child abuse - on home 'schooling' and cancer care

Here is the story, some of which you might already have heard about: A 13 year old teenage boy in Minnesota, carefully brainwashed by his parents by means of 'God' enlightened home 'schooling', is diagnosed during a hospital visit with suffering from a form of cancer called Hodgkin's lymphoma. Just to be clear, 'God' here, for a change, isn't 'Jesus' or 'Allah' or Jehova', nope it's a fakeish American-Indian thingie called Nemenhah. That might make it more attractive to freewheeling hippies, but it's no less idiotic obviously. Thankfully, if diagnosed and treated in time, there's a very high likelihood that, with proper treatment - involving chemotherapy - the child patient would survive. The probability of successful medical care is in the vicinity of 85 to > 90%.

Well, the farm-based home-schooled child of God decides that it doesn't want chemotherapy anymore. The side-effects are unpleasant, and he saw his auntie die while on chemotherapy. The family seeks a second expert opinion that also confirms the high likelihood of success of chemotherapy. They kid won't have any of it (who cares about expert opinion when a teenage boy has strong views about cancer care, and he's duly supported (or coaxed into this) but his parents who believe in 'natural' remedies. A court thing ensues, as is wont in such cases, and the court orders the kid to be treated with allopathic medicines in order to preserve his life. This, of course, is perfectly fair enough, given the obvious child abuse that took place here. Comes Mom who grabs her boy and takes off to Mexico in search of further alternative cures. It's interesting how a combination of life-threatening illness and idiotic parents can actually kill children.

Some have argued that in this case perhaps religious belief shouldn't be criticised unduly, given that it might just be the pretext used by parents predisposed to using 'natural' remedies over mainstream medicine. I don't buy into this. In this case as well as others like it is very difficult to ascertain retrospectively what it is that existed first, belief in natural remedies as a result of religious conviction or religious belief leading to silly ideas about modern medicine. The point surely is that in both cases religious belief is central to the 'argument' rejecting life-preserving medical care.

Comes Mom and runs away with the son, reportedly to Mexico in order to find an alternative cure for the kid. Doctors confirm that time is running out for the kid, and that he's going to reach the point of no return any time soon. Invariably there has been discussion about religious freedom in this context. Frankly, I doubt it's about this, it's about parents clearly unable to make decisions that are in their child's objective best interest (it goes without saying probably, neither is the 13 year old teenager in question, seeing that he is already lacking any decent schooling). It does not matter whether their motive is a non-existent mainstream religion God or such a God's American-Indian alternative. It's irrelevant to a large extent - at this point in time - what motivates the parents and child. What is much more troublesome is that it could have got this far to begin with. The reassuring news is that in another case, where a mother prayed for her diabetic child instead of taking her to the hospital, she was found guilty of second degree reckless homicide.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Apologies, I am currently away in beautiful Ilmenau

Folks, I am currently at a conference in picturesque Ilmenau. I'll be back with more frequent entries from May 19 or thereabouts. Apologies for the hiatus.

Meanwhile I reproduce here a piece from the Toronto Star that covers some of my views on IVF and such matters. Following the article is a link to a site where IVF proponents vent their anger and arguments against my views.

The right to bear children


There are two things in Ashley Bulley-Arbos's house she always wanted, but feared she would never see.

"We had them set up at five months," says Bulley-Arbos, now seven months pregnant with twins thanks to in-vitro fertilization. "It was pretty exciting."

Married to her high school sweetheart, Bulley-Arbos never had any doubt she wanted children. Not many, but she knew she would never feel complete if she didn't have kids with the man she loves, Adrian Arbos.

More than that, she says, it's her right to be a mother – and she wasn't going to let a little thing like infertility get in her way.

"It's not a want, it's a need for me," she says. "If I hadn't ever got pregnant, I could never be happy."

The 25-year-old is now an active member of Conceivable Dreams, a support group for couples needing medical help to get pregnant.

Tomorrow, Mother's Day, the group will lead a march at 10 a.m. from City Hall to Queen's Park with 200 women pushing empty strollers to demand that the province fund in-vitro fertilization. Quebec recently announced that it would soon begin funding up to three IVF cycles per couple.

Bulley-Arbos's friends and neighbours rallied to help her and Arbos raise two-thirds of the $15,000 cost for IVF. She will speak at the rally – dubbed the Pram Push – to tell her story of relying on bake sales, community barbecues and a Bands for Babies charity concert to raise the money.

"It took us a while to get over that we were going to charity," she says.

No one, Bulley-Arbos says, should have to rely on handouts to pay for a medical treatment. "It should be anybody's right to have a baby. This is a medical procedure," she says.

Not everyone agrees.

"It's a perfectly private matter, it's a private interest," says Udo Schuklenk, a medical ethicist at Queen's University.

Being a parent is not a right, he says.

It's a personal choice that the rest of society should not have to pay for through their taxes, he says.

"People die from preventable illnesses because of the way health care resources are allocated."

Schuklenk understands the instinctual desire to produce offspring, but says that does not make it a human right.

"From there it does not follow that there is a moral claim on others to foot the bill," he says. "It's selfish."

Christine Overall, a feminist ethicist at Queen's, warns that if women had a right to be mothers, men would have a corresponding right to be fathers. At that, she says, would allow men to demand that a woman become pregnant, throwing out decades of progress on contraception and abortion rights.

"If someone has a right to be a parent, that implies an obligation on the part of someone else (to also be a parent)," she says. "You don't have the right to the gamies of another."

She does, however, support full funding for IVF, saying it would be unethical to deny some women access to a medical procedure on the basis of ability to pay.

"It should be provided on an as-needed basis," Overall says, adding the question of whether a woman has a right to be a mother needs to be separated from the right to IVF.

"It's not a matter of a right to be a parent. It's a matter of a right to access to a medical procedure."

Overall also worries that if women had a right to be mothers, the medical system would become obligated to do everything possible to fulfill that right, including endless rounds of IVF.

"It's wrong to say you have a right to be a mother, because you can never guarantee a baby," she says.

Having worked in medical clinics in South Africa for five years, Schuklenk says there are children around the world growing up orphaned or in terrible conditions who would have a better life if people in the western world chose adoption over IVF.

But that's not likely to happen, he says, if IVF is easy to get. Besides, he says, those who object to paying for IVF on their own should realize that it costs about as much to raise a child as it does to buy a house.

"And yet, they are not willing to make that initial investment (of paying for IVF)," he says.

Bulley-Arbos, whose twins are due Canada Day, is a firm believer that IVF should be covered under medicare. With a household income of about $60,000, she says, the day-to-day costs of raising a child are affordable, but not a medical procedure that would eat up a quarter of their income.

A recent study found that it would actually be cheaper for the Ontario Health Insurance Plan to cover IVF than to continue the current user-pay system.

That's because parents going through IVF tend to get more than one embryo implanted to boost the odds of one going to term. But with IVF improving, more embryos are surviving to birth – leading to a jump in multiple births.

And because multiple birth children tend to have more medical problems throughout their lives, they require more from the medical system.

Health economics analyst Lindy Forte found that each multiple birth child costs medicare an extra $598,000 over its lifetime. Because of that, she says, funding single-implantation IVF cycles would save the Ontario health care system up to $130 million a year.

Beverly Hanck of the Infertility Awareness Association of Canada says any funding of IVF would include limits on the number of embryos being implanted.

"The ultimate goal is one healthy baby," she says.

Back in Tilbury, Bulley-Arbos says it's not just prospective parents who suffer in cases of infertility.

When her brother and his wife found out they were having a child – before Bulley-Arbos was pregnant – he was reluctant to share the good news for fear it might hurt his then-struggling sister.

Likewise, she says, her parents were "devastated" by the troubles she was having becoming pregnant.

"It's not just my husband and me," she says.

Bulley-Arbos says she is trying to give "something back" for all the community support she received in her efforts to get pregnant, and has dedicated herself to pushing for full IVF funding in Ontario so that any woman can become a mother.

"My story has a happy ending," she says. "Not everybody gets their happy ending."

A parenting fitness test?

Some people already have the right to be parents – those able to have children without medical help.

Medical ethicist Udo Schuklenk of Queen's University says a couple's right or fitness to be parents tends to only be raised for those such as infertile or gay couples who can't bear children on their own.

No one, he says, tells a couple that is capable of bearing children that they have no right to do so. And yet newspapers regularly carry stories of parents unwilling or unable to properly care for their children, as well as terrible stories of abuse and neglect.

"Would it not make sense to check whether people are actually fit to be a parent?"

Such tests already exist, he says, for couples trying to adopt children, who must submit to criminal and income checks. Medical tests could also be done to ensure disabilities are not passed on, he says.

He admits, however, that there would likely be a strong reaction to such an idea, as it would raise the spectre of eugenics and selective breeding.

"I can see how what I am saying can be misconstrued," he says. "But if we are really concerned about the welfare of children ... it makes sense for the state to look at these sorts of issues."

- Stuart Laidlaw

... and the link to the IVF user site (it seems that that's what it is):

Friday, May 01, 2009

We made it into the Economist

with this note (in this week's issue):

Religious nonsense

SIR – I agree that freedom of speech “must include the right to ‘defame’ religions” (“The meaning of freedom”, April 4th). The UN Human Rights Council, which adopted a resolution decrying religious defamation as an affront to human dignity, is controlled mostly by countries that are among the most prolific violators of civil rights, including the right to speak one’s mind.

The blasphemy document itself is remarkable in its scope and deliberate vagueness. Notorious civil-rights violators like Iran and Saudi Arabia will now be able to claim with some confidence that the UN is on their side when they clamp down on liberal-minded or secular Muslims. Western countries will also be happy to note that the council thinks the human right to free speech is not violated when they enforce their own, less draconian, blasphemy laws. The UN has firmly established itself as a body that is not even prepared to defend the basic principles enshrined in its Declaration of Human Rights.

Udo Schuklenk
Professor of philosophy
Queen’s University
Kingston, Canada