Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Kids, clones, and rights

I came across this really worth reading commentary by the Australian philosopher, lawyer and science fiction writer Russell Blackford. He currently works at my old stomping ground, Monash University's School of Philosophy and Bioethics. So, a fellow Melbournian - no surprise then he'd write good stuff (... just kidding). It's a commentary on Francis Fukuyama and Franco Furger's Beyond Bioethics. Check it out here! My favourite snippet: 'Perhaps we actually should hold parents to a more exacting standard. It depresses me when children are held back in developing their talents or their knowledge of the world. It is especially galling to see kids being taught that the world is only 6000 years old, or that it is under the control of a powerful being who detests homosexuals, or any of the other kinds of implausible and destructive claptrap with which kids are frequently indoctrinated. It’s difficult to make teaching these things a crime - what with the issues of freedom of religion - but educated people can recognise it as harmful and reprehensible, and be a lot more forthright in condemning it.'

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Does Africa need cloned animals - or am I missing something?

Calestous Juma argues on the BBC website that Africans need cloned animals to generate their meat products. He claims that cloned animals would be more likely to survive in the harsh African climate. Juma is, and here I quote from the BBC's website, 'Calestous Juma is a professor of international development at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, and co-chairs a high-level expert panel of the African Union on modern biotechnology'. A lot of heavy-weight competence and business class airfares, that much is certain. Anyway, I shouldn't bitch too much - have been there, done that (well, the junket trips). Juma's argument strikes me as odd. He acknowledges that cloned animals tend to be more likely to suffer serious health problems (read: die faster, die younger), and that they also happen to be much more expensive than the average local cow that came about by her parents doing ... (well, you get the drift). Everyone knows these days that meat production is hugely inefficient in terms of how much energy we have to invest and how much we eventually get out of it. Many more Africans could be fed by means of local produce if no meat production took place on that continent at all.

Juma can think of another good reason why cloning is so important, namely because African nations could utilise such competence to eventually clone animals from species that are on the verge of extinction. No doubt that is just what Africans would do, at least those Africans that desperately need cloned cows so they can feed themselves. However, in all fairness, he's got a point when he stresses that joint research partnerships between developed and developing countries would increase biotech capacity on the African continent. That indeed is a very worthwhile thing, even if it is probably wasted on trying to clone cows for Sudan.

Please do note that I am not at all making a case for or against utilising sentient animals as a food product. The argument against is overwhelmingly strong, but my doubts about cloning for Africa are unrelated to that case.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Novartis - rapidly running out of friends in India

Indian treatment access activists demonstrating against Novartis' legal challenge against the Indian patent regime. Novartis' success, as I reported earlier, would put at risk the Indian production of cheap generics (eg for the treatment of HIV/AIDS in many developing countries).

Sunday, January 28, 2007

Hogmanay hogwash

Many New Year parties in the Uk had to be cancelled due to atrocious weather conditions at the end of last year. In fact, sitting in my living room in Glasgow I was glad I had not to go out and brace myself for gale force winds and torrential rainfalls. Strangely though, while organisers in places such as Liverpool and Manchester cancelled their shows in the early afternoons organisers in Edinburgh only cancelled their's in the late evening. About 100,000 prospective revellers were subsequently stuck in Edinburgh without any reasonable alternatives. Not only didn't it occur to the organisers to have an alternative indoors venue in place ( considering the weather conditions were pretty precisely predicted by the weather bureau), but they also ensured the folks were truly stuck in Edinburgh and would only be able to leave the next day. So, while the local tourism-reliant economy boomed that time around, one wonders whether prospective party goers will learn their lessons and stay clear of Edinburgh, as undoubtedly they should. After all, they now know that they will not be told early enough that Edinburgh's Hogmanay will be cancelled, until it is too late for them to leave Edinburgh and go somewhere else.

Friday, January 26, 2007

My Name is Dr John Elliott, and I am about to die with my head held high

A moving story in today's Sydney Morning Herald, Sydne's quality daily, on Dr John Elliott, an American physician (a Sydney resident) who travelled all the way to Zurich to commit physician assisted suicide. There's not much point in me re-telling what has happened. Read it here!

Islamic School chains kid

G.M.B. Akash won the World Press Photo Award for this photo of a youngster in chains in an Islamic School in Bangladesh. The boy's crime? He ran twice away from that school... - Since publication of the photo in a Nepalese magazine Mr Akash has been at the receiving end of murder threats by angry Muslims. Another case of shooting (well, not yet) the messenger.

post scriptum 05/02/2007: Someone emailed me today to advise that Akash won the WPP Award for a different photo. Not that this makes a great deal of difference to the rest of the story, but if he did't win it for this photo, I thought some might wish to know. I certainly do not want to leave you with wrong impressions about the picture. - I have no way to verify this claim or the initial claim, so fel free to investigate in case you want to know :).

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Remove Ruth Kelly from ministerial office

Here's a comment on my take on Gay Adoption (posted on the New Humanist Editor's blog)... read till the end and add your signature :).

Posted by Laurence Boyce

"Religious views, you might say, and I would certainly concur are private affairs. We all are perfectly entitled to believe in any particular God (and as you will know, there are plenty of them on offer out there) or none at all. The golden rule in this regard is that we basically are entitled to do in our private lives whatever we consider appropriate in that regard."

It sounds plausible enough, but the trouble is that religion has never been content to restrict itself to a purely private sphere of influence. Why would it? Religions purport to hold the key to eternal life; the stakes could scarcely be higher. This simple observation perfectly explains the exquisite arrogance of the believer.

As for Ruth Kelly, I see that a petition has begun for her removal from office. Please sign up today and tell all your freinds; then maybe we won't have to tolerate her for too much longer.

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Winds of Change - update on gay adoption

The Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell on the gay adoption controversy. The BBC reports that Tony Blair has caved in to Cabinet and MPs' demands that there will be no conscience based exceptions from the requirement of anti-discrimination legislation for church run adoption agencies. That would be excellent news for civil rights in the UK.

Gay adoption

Public Obligations and Private Preferences

Just a few weeks ago the Scottish Parliament did the right thing. It permitted adoption agencies to allow gay couples to adopt children. Frankly, this being the 21st century, I didn't expect anyone to bat an eyelid in response to this decision. And not many eyelids were batted beyond the usual suspects belonging to various church hierarchies. Cardinal Keith O'Brien, our local representative of the Vatican, predicted entirely predictably our descent into a spiral of immorality. Explain that take on the issue to thousands of well-cared for AIDS orphans in Southern African who have been adopted over the years by gay couples. Even the Catholic Church knows that there is no evidence that children brought up by gay couples are any worse adapted than children brought up by straight folks. So, it's not its concern for the children's well-being that drives them. Its take on the matter at hand is that a fairly old, logically inconsistent booklet forming the ideological basis for much of Mr. O'Brien's statements, tells us that gay adoption is wrong. Why anybody in government should care is something I truly do not comprehend. The Catholic Church, when stripped of all the bluster of titles and robes, has long ceased to be a credible arbiter of morality. It knows little to nothing about human sexuality and tends to limp from one home-made sexual scandal to the next.

Enter Ruth Kelly. The Communities Secretary is not your average church going Catholic, far from that. She is a card carrying member of Opus Dei. Opus Dei is a particularly fundamentalist arm of the Catholic Church. Religious views, you might say, and I would certainly concur are private affairs. We all are perfectly entitled to believe in any particular God (and as you will know, there are plenty of them on offer out there) or none at all. The golden rule in this regard is that we basically are entitled to do in our private lives whatever we consider appropriate in that regard. That certainly applies to Ruth Kelly as much as my Polish plumber. The trouble really began when Ms Kelly decided to create a loophole in said adoption rules. She plans, supported by regular Pope chum Tony Blair to permit religious organizations to discriminate against prospective adoptive gay parents. I am not surprised she would come up with such a strategy. The last Opus Dei member I came across advised my gay office manager that she would pray for him so he would be able to become heterosexual. I wish I could say 'just made that one up', but I didn't.

Ruth Kelly should have recognized that she has a clear conflict of interest between her public responsibilities as a communities secretary and her private-preference religious views. In John Reid's famous words (uttered admittedly in a different context), she is certainly not fit for purpose and should be replaced by someone who is not abusing government office to achieve religious ideological objectives. – And spare me the nonsense about the grave danger to children's well-being if the Catholic Church really closed its adoption agencies, as it threatened to do if anti-discrimination legislation would be applied to its activities as they apply to everyone else's. Leaving aside this demonstration of the Church's prioritizing of its ideology over the children's well-being as well as its clear attempt at blackmailing the democratic state, surely it should not be overly difficult to channel the public funding the Church receives for its adoption agencies to a charity that has its eyes on the ball (the children as opposed to the book). – Still skeptical as to whether the Church and its government minister might have a point? Just imagine the book would have said that black orphans may not be adopted by white people. Would you still think the Church has a case?

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

China's rulers: Ethically inspiring TV for you :)

AP reports today that mainland Chinese TV stations must broadcast 'ethically inspiring' programmes to the country's citizens. Given that in the corruption and civil rights violations plagued PR of China a lot of news would be less than inspiring some clarification from the powers that are has been provided. The programming must 'reflect the reality of China in a positive way'. Now you know. That probably is the PR of China equivalent to the news programming on Rupert Murdoch's Fox News which is clearly attempting to brainwash the US public into believing that GW Bush is a competent and honourable President of the USA.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Cabinet row over adoptions by gay couples

The Guardian reports today about a UK government row over adoptions by gay couples. Here's my letter to the editor of the paper, responding to that report: 'Quite remarkable that the fundamentalist Catholic sect Opus Dei's permanent representative in New Labour's government, communities secretary Ruth Kelly, proposes that unjust discrimination is acceptable as long as it is meted out by people and organisations sharing her particular set of prejudices. She probably does not believe that gay people working in adoption agencies should also be entitled to prevent members of Opus Dei from adopting children. It is very obvious that she prioritises her individual system of prejudices over the greater good of society. High time for cabinet to put a stop that. Can't someone put her in charge of developing rules for collecting traffic fines or something similar?'

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Global Health Priority Setting

In the next issue of DEVELOPING WORLD BIOETHICS (a journal of which I am a co-editor) we will publish a paper arguing that tsunami related international aid was disproportionate if one looks at the number of people affected compared with other disease and disaster related deaths in the world. The authors alert us to the fact that if numbers alone mattered international aid should be spending arguably substantially higher for HIV/AIDS than on the tsunamis disaster in the end of 2004. Their contribution should perhaps be seen in the context of a larger debate about proper priority setting in international health related aids programmes. Laurie Garrett, of the US Council on Foreign Relations, argues in a thoughtful recent article that current funding priorities are all too often too narrow-mindedly focused on targets such as a certain number of HIV positive people in a given developing country on antiretroviral therapy at a certain point in time.[1] This, he rightly points out, often comes at too high a price as local resources are re-routed to achieve that particular objective. Healthcare professionals go for better-paid jobs in such programmes, and as a consequence developing nations’ health delivery systems begin to crumble. Moreover, given that such targets are usually donor-driven (eg by the Gates Foundation) there is a very serious risk that once the funding dries up the programmes become unsustainable. Garrett suggests that we should no longer focus on such narrow objectives but that instead we ought to shoot for public health outcomes, such as overall life-expectancy and increased maternal survival.

[1] Laurie Garrett. 2007. The Challenge of Global Health. Foreign Affairs 86(1): 14-38.

Friday, January 19, 2007

and... to end this week on a funny note

Here's a classic... from YouTube, Ali G interviewing medics on medical ethics and other stuff. Pretty hilarious :).

Novartis vs the developing world's poor

The Swiss company Novartis is taking the Indian government to court
over its legislation pertaining to generic drugs. Novartis wants to
make it more difficult for Indian companies to produce generic drugs.
According to a report at MSF is collecting signature under
a petition calling on Novartis to drop the case. The medical charity
points out that 'India is the pharmacy for the developing world'.

Further information about the background to the MSF campaign can be found here.

The petition is available here

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Paying for Neglected Disease Research

There has been a lot of hand waving accompanying recent donations of large swathes of money by the likes of Bill Gates and others. - Don't worry, I won't even mention the insufferable Bono and his funny Africa related initiatives (you bought the red motorola phone, watch, armani underwear, condom already in order to eliminate poverty in africa? do it now, according to Bono and his friends this constitutes a major contribution toward the elimination of world poverty.) - Somehow, at least this was the impression given by many commentators, these sorts of philanthropic giving-away exercises would make a big difference in the fight against neglected diseases such as Malaria and TB. MSF reports today that in actual fact these private activities don't make much of a difference as the sums required to deal effectively even with TB are substantially larger then what even the Gates Foundation is prepared to spend. All goes back, ultimately to the responsibility of governments to provide the funding required to develop the tools to eradicate such illnesses. Further useful background readings at one of the useful health sites on the web, the kaisernetwork.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

USA: 7000 deaths caused by illegible doctor's scripts

The German news magazine DER SPIEGEL reports that about 7000 people die unnecessarily annually in the USA because pharmacists cannot read the illegible handwriting on doctor's prescriptions. They subsequently dispense wrong medication, a lot of people die. Well, the most obvious, and correct point surely is to ask why doctors don't use digital prescriptions, and there doesn't seem any answers to that. Another question, however, is surely why pharmacists hand out drugs if they cannot read the prescription. Also makes me wonder why patients just gobble up whatever the pharmacists is handing out to them, without even bothering to check whether it's actually related to their illness...

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Fundraising to feed AIDS orphans

Let me tell you something about an AIDS charity worthy probably also of your support. It's a (really - trust me) community based project in Southern Africa. What they do, in a nutshell, is to try to keep AIDS orphans in some kind of family unit (most likely relatives or neighbours). In order to ease the burdens on those usually impoverished families, however, the initiative provides 2 meals per day per child through community based food kitchens. Phedisang's approach to the problem is two-fold: It aims to move as many of the kids it feeds as is feasible on to the state grants that these kids are entitled to (but that they would never receive if it wasn't for the logistical support from Phedisang). So, basically, the first step is to keep kids properly fed, the second step is to move them on to state support in order to free donor money for other children in similar need.
To my mind it's a very clever system because it is sustainable in the longterm, because it's small and doesn't rely on massive administrative operations (gobbling up much of the donor money), and reassuringly, there are no overseas concultants on obscene international salaries that need to be 'fed', too. Check it out and consider supporting them!

Friday, January 05, 2007

Limiting disabled off-spring's physical size

A case has been reported from the USA where parents have their severely disabled off-spring injected with hormones to prevent her from growing. Their main motive is their child's well-being. If their child would grow to that of a normal adult the parents would be unable to care for her properly. Here's a link to the parents' website explaining why they're doing what they're doing. The facts as they are reported on the parents' site have been vetted by bioethicists with a professional background in pediatrics and have been confirmed to be true. Their findings were published in a peer reviewed journal in 2006. I find it difficult faulting the parents for their choice. One of my colleagues, Hugh McLachlan has. His arguments can be found here.

Here is an excerpt from a commentary made by Douglas S Diekema (MD, MPH) from the Treuman Katz Center for Pediatric Bioethics in Seattle. His views pretty much summarise what I think about this matter.

'Joel Frader pointed out something that many others have, which is that perhaps this treatment misses the point because it doesn't focus on the failure of society to support these familes. While I totally agree that many families who have children with disabilities are left adrift and unsupported in the US, and I would further agree that represents a huge problem, I would nonetheless suggest that the issue of societal failure to support many families who have children with disabilities is a separate issue. First, to argue that this kind of treatment should not have been offered because the real issue is that society needs to provide support doesn't really help these families. The fact is that society doesn't provide many of them the support they need, and it's not clear that refusing to offer them options like this (when appropriate) changes that fact--it simply leaves them with no societal support AND no options like this one. Second, this family did not seek growth attenuation because they lacked support. The parents concerns would not have been addressed by full support. They were not driven by a feeeling that this was the only option they had left, but by the sense that the option of growth attenuation acheived their goal of optimizing quality of life better than any other solution. Buying them a mechanical lift or full time nursing care wouldn't have changed the fact that having a smaller daughter would mean they would be able to lift her, carry her, hug her more easily, and take her places more

On Sunday January 07, 2007 the OBSERVER newspaper published a thoughtful commentary on this case and the debate surrounding it.

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