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December
14
  11:09:00 AM

Psychologists criticised in CIA torture report

Two psychologists contracted by the CIA to create enhanced interrogation techniques for al-Qaeda detainees have come under fire for violating human rights and medical ethics. Although pseudonyms were used in the 480-page report published this week by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, it was clearly referring to Bruce Jessen and James Mitchell, who were paid US$81 million for their work.

Both Jessen and Mitchell had worked on  the military’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) program in which soldiers are trained to endure brutal mock interrogations, including waterboarding. After 9/11 they were asked to design an interrogation program.

Despite the opprobrium heaped on them, the two men cannot respond directly to the criticisms in the report because they have signed non-disclosure agreements. “I’m in a box -- I’m caught in some Kafka novel,” Mitchell, who is now retired and living in Florida, told Bloomberg. “Everyone is assuming it is me, but I can’t confirm or deny it. It is frustrating because you can’t defend yourself.”

But he defended the broad aims of the program he helped to design.

“The people who think the men and woman in the CIA are doing the heavy lifting for them so they can sleep safe at night, those people I get a lot of positive comments from. Then there are the people who think it would be better that 3,000 people die than that KSM [Khalid Sheikh Mohammed] get slapped and they don’t care because it isn’t going to be them who is dying. They just don’t care.”

The techniques they designed were based on the notion of “learned helplessness”, which was developed in the 1960s with dogs by Martin Seligman (who is mortified by his indirect link with torture). People who face unending adversity eventually become depressed and give up attempts to improve their situation. The CIA's psychologists thought that this state would encourage detainees to become cooperative and volunteer information.

Physicians for Human Rights was highly critical of the participation of health professionals in all stages of the CIA’s program. Their involvement in monitoring the torture techniques was central to providing legal protection to interrogators, said PHR, as torture could them be described as “safe, legal, and effective”.

"They were complicit at every step, including designing the torture techniques, monitoring the infliction of severe physical and mental pain, and failing to document clear evidence of harm,” said Dr Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “What happened was unethical, unlawful, and immoral, and we must ensure it never happens again."

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December
14
  4:00:00 AM

Islamic State rumoured to fund war with organ trafficking

Allegations have been made that the Islamic State is trafficking organs to finance its military campaigns.

A doctor in the Iraqi city of Mosul, Siruwan Al-Mosuli, reportedly told the publication Al-Monitor that a large-scale organ-harvesting racket was being run out of local hospitals, and that IS was reaping significant profits from the scheme.

Al-Mosuli said that Iraqi and foreign doctors were being hired to work in local hospitals and perform rapid organ removal operations from recently deceased jihadis or captives. The organs are swiftly transported from the hospital to potential local or foreign buyers.

The Islamic State has a specialized group which focuses solely on organ trafficking, Al-Mosuli said.

It is often the case in bitter conflicts that one side will accuse the other of organ trafficking, sometimes with little or no evidence. There are however, a number of other sources that support the allegations made by Al-Mosuli.

In January the website Vocativ ran a report on the use of desperate Syrian refugees for illegal organ trafficking. In March,Iranian news outlet Al-Alam interviewed a Syrian forensic pathologist who claimed that more than 18,000 cases of organ trafficking had been reported in northern Syria.

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December
14
  12:40:00 AM

No love, no marriage, just the baby carriage

You’ve heard of hook-up sites like match.com for people who just want sex, but not marriage and kids. But you may not have heard of sites like Modamily.com, PollenTree.com and Familybydesign.com for people who just want kids, but not marriage and sex.

According to The Atlantic, co-parenting is a new trend in the evolution of the family. Women who have given up on romance and the ideal guy but still want a child search for sperm donors who are willing to be involved in the child’s upbringing.

“We are seeing a growing trend of a female, same-sex-couple parenting with the man who provides the genetic material but does not relinquish his rights as a sperm donor,” Diana Adams, a New York lawyer told The Atlantic. A number of cases of sperm donors who have forced their way acrimoniously into a relationship have made headlines. But apparently there is an increasing number of platonic and peaceful relationships. Some women see it as far superior to single motherhood.

“Throughout history, the model that has worked for humankind was extended family—a village, a tribe,” Rachel Hope, author of Family By Choice: Platonic Partnered Parenting, told The Atlantic. “It’s only recently that we’ve started doing the nuclear family, with one mom and one dad, and it’s really a failed experiment.”

Other marriage experts warn that this experiment is inherently unstable and therefore bad for children. "My concern about platonic parenting is that such an arrangement will not last," said W. Bradford Wilcox, the director of the National Marriage Project. "In most cases, one or both of the parties will develop a non-platonic attraction to someone else and move on."

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December
14
  12:03:00 AM

When transgender men have children

Transgender studies is a field which comes up with many surprises. An article in this month’s issue of Obstetrics & Gynecology says that since most transgender men desire to have children, more attention should be paid to those who actually bear their own.

A few years ago, such cases of “pregnant men” were rare enough for Thomas Beatie to appear on Oprah Winfrey (who said that he/she was "a new definition of what diversity means for everybody"). Now, it seems, it is going mainstream. Beatie went on to have three children, even though he and his wife have filed for divorce. 

Researchers found that in a small sample of 41 transgender men who became pregnant, the mean age was 28 and 80% had used their own eggs. A significant number suffered from post-natal depression. Half of the transgender men who had not transitioned with the help of testosterone had an unplanned pregnancy and one-fourth of the transgender men who had used testosterone had an unplanned pregnancy. The authors concluded that there is “a potential unmet need for contraceptive services for transgender men”. 

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December
13
  11:27:00 PM

Ontario doctors preparing for battle over conscience rights

A draft policy of the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario demands that physicians must provide services to prevent imminent “harm, suffering and/or deterioration,” even if doing so is contrary to their moral beliefs. Critics of the new policy fear that they will be forced to violate their conscience.

The draft policy says:

The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (the “Charter”) protects the right to freedom of conscience and religion. Although physicians have this freedom under the Charter, the Supreme Court of Canada has determined that no rights are absolute. The right to freedom of conscience and religion can be limited, as necessary, to protect public safety, order, health, morals, or the fundamental rights and freedoms of others. Where physicians choose to limit the health services they provide for moral or religious reasons, this may impede access to care resulting in a violation of patient rights under the Charter and the Code.

Although euthanasia is not legal in Canada at the moment, should the Supreme Court legalize it, the policy will require objecting physicians to lethally inject patients themselves if a delay would result in “harm” or “suffering.” In less urgent circumstances, the policy will require physicians unwilling to kill patients to promptly refer them to “a non-objecting, available physician or other health-care provider.”

However, many physicians who object to abortion or euthanasia for reasons of conscience would also object to referral. Dr Charles Bernard, President of Quebec’s Collège des médecins, has explained that mandatory referral effectively nullifies freedom of conscience: “It is as if you did it anyway.”

Prominent academics and activists want to force objecting physicians to provide or refer for abortion and contraception. They and others have led increasingly strident campaigns to suppress freedom of conscience among physicians to achieve that goal. The College’s draft policy clearly reflects their influence.

The Protection of Conscience Project, a lobby group, insists that “it is incoherent and contrary to sound public policy to include a requirement to do what one believes to be wrong in a professional code of ethics. It is also an affront to the best traditions of liberal democracy, and, ultimately, dangerous”.

The College Council has tentatively approved the policy, but will accept public input until February 20 before imposing it on Ontario physicians.

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December
13
  9:48:00 PM

A transhumanist in conversation

Zoltan Istvan is an American writer, futurist and philosopher. He is also perhaps the best-known proponent of transhumanism movement. He spoke with BioEdge earlier this week. 

Q. The latest news in transhumanist circles, I gather, is that you will be running for President of the United States in 2016. What do you have to offer that the other candidates don’t?

A: Transhumanists are often seen as a strange group of people, and despite some of my radical ideas, I manage to remain very normal in daily life. I'm married, have two sweet kids, am an entrepreneur, and have worked for notable companies before, such as National Geographic. I think I can share the positive possibilities of transhumanism with the general public quite well. I think that's my greatest asset as a candidate--being a normal guy with futurist ideas. 

Q. If elected, what are some key policies you would implement? 

A: The first policy I'd implement is creating a national framework for all citizens to live longer and healthier. America spends trillions of dollars on far off wars, but very little on actual science and longevity research. That must change. I would like to change America's military industrial complex into a longevity industrial complex. If we're going to be spending so much money at all, let's spend it directly on our health and well being. 

Q. Transhumanism promises a lot -- but can it solve all political problems? For instance, what is its policy on the Islamic State and radical Islam? Or how will it bring prosperity to the Democratic Republic of Congo? 

A: The Transhumanist Party is relatively new, so it's still working out a lot of those positions on various political concerns, like foreign policy. But it stands behind sharing technologies and creating joint enterprises to lift all groups and nations out of poverty, war, and injustice. 

Q. Christians are generally suspicious of the transhumanist ideology. How would you go about winning over Christian voters? 

A: This is perhaps the toughest mission of transhumanism, to convince a mostly religious world that the rapid advance of technology isn't against faith. Transhumanists must focus on doing good works and showing how technology can improve lives and health. If they do that, Christians and other religious people will befriend us and count us as allies in the making the world a better place.

Q. Bioethicist Wesley Smith recently argued that transhumanism undermines the notion of individual human dignity. He was also concerned about your statements regarding the legitimacy of war to promote the transhumanist cause. What do you say? 

A: Wesley is a friend and powerful thinker, but I disagree that transhumanism undermines anything, expect perhaps death and poor health. Transhumanism strengthens all of us in myriad ways.  

Regarding war and transhumanism, surely many life-changing movements and their supporters would fight for their beliefs if threatened. Transhumanism aims to provide far better lives to our families and people everywhere, and we believe that is worth standing up for. 

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December
06
  4:40:00 PM

UK may offer free weight-loss surgery to fight epidemic

The UK government should offer free weight loss surgery to thousands more people in order to tackle an epidemic of type 2 diabetes, according to expert advice.

A quarter of Britons are obese, fuelling a rise in cases of type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease, fatty liver disease and cancer. Last year, 6,500 weight loss procedures were performed. Another 5,000 weight loss surgeries will be carried out each year if the government accepts the advice of the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE).

Dr Rachel Batterham, Head of Obesity and Bariatric Services at University College London Hospital Trust, says “The health benefits of weight loss surgery are so great that it should be considered as part of the treatment for obese diabetics. The earlier you have the surgery in your diabetes course, then the more likely you are to have remission or a really good improvement.”

NICE says that 10% of the budget of the National Health Service is currently spent on diabetes and its complications. Surgery could pay for itself in two or three years. According to a report from McKinsey consultants, obesity now costs the UK nearly £47bn a year, more than armed violence, war and terrorism.

Weight-loss surgery is a drastic, but necessary, remedy, says Professor Jane Ogden, of the University of Surrey.

“In an ideal world people would eat less, do more and stay a healthy weight. Grab bags, takeaways, fizzy drinks and fast food would never have been invented and well lit cycle paths and wide pavements would make getting in the car a treat reserved for special occasions. But those days are gone and today’s world makes it so hard to eat less and so easy to do nothing that even with the greatest will in the world many people struggle with their weight.”

However, NICE and media reports skirted around the traditional bioethical discussion of bariatric surgery, especially for adolescents. In 2010 the American Journal of Bioethics had a special issue on the challenge of obesity and noted:

“Bariatric surgery is particularly interesting because it uses surgical methods to modify healthy organs, is not curative, but offers symptoms relief for a condition that it is considered to result from lack of self-control and is subject to significant prejudice. Taking the reviewed ethical issues into account is important when meeting persons eligible for bariatric surgery, as well as in the assessment of and decision making on surgery for obesity.”

Interestingly, the NICE guidelines do not discuss obesity as an ethical issue, but only its economic benefits.  

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December
06
  3:41:00 PM

Remembering the dark story of Peru’s population control campaign

The Quipu Project is an interactive documentary about women and men who were sterilised in Peru in the mid-1990s by population controllers, often without informed consent. Using VOIP telephone lines and a web interface, researchers are gathering testimony from women in isolated communities high in the Andes. Many are illiterate and speak only Quechua, the principal indigenous language.

In the video above Francisca Quispe Pontenciano recalls the circumstances which led to her sterilisation. It makes painful listening.

This horrific story is hardly known outside of Peru. “I was working for Amnesty International in Peru in the 1990s and nobody knew this was going on,” Matthew Brown, of the University of Bristol, in the UK, told Prospect. “Awareness has been growing in the last three years, partly because of our project and partly because of the efforts of victims groups. These women were sterilised at 20 and now they are coming up to 45 with no one to look after them in old age. That was the community welfare safety net.”

An estimated 300,000 women were sterilised by officials while Alberto Fujimori was president of Peru. He is now serving a 25 year sentence for crimes against humanity, although he has been exonerated of the abuses committed during the population control campaign. Prosecutors failed to prove that Fujimori was criminally responsible for the sterilisation campaign because “no one can force a doctor to do something against their will.”

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December
06
  2:35:00 PM

Should severely disabled infants be euthanased?

Two of the leading voices in bioethics have a fascinating head-to-head confrontation on the euthanasia of severely disabled infants in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery. Udo Schuklenk, of  Queen's University, in Canada, the  co-editor of the journal Bioethics, and Gilbert Meilaender, of Valparaiso University, in Indiana, discuss the ethics of, in Schuklenk’s words, “what would amount to postnatal abortion”.

The arguments of both men are familiar, but succinct and quotable.

Arguing from a quality-of-life standpoint, Schuklenk writes that “Once we have concluded that death is what is in the best interest of the infant, it is unreasonable not to bring about this death as painlessly and as much controlled in terms of timing by the parents as is feasible.”

After dismissing arguments drawn from human dignity, sanctity-of-life, and the principle of double effect, Schuklenk still has to explain why a suffering infant could not be simply sedated so that it would not suffer, thus avoiding the need for euthanasia. The answer he says, is that parents and doctors and nurses would suffer unnecessarily.

The unnecessarily prolonged dying of their infant son would extend a severely distressing situation for the parents. They would have to witness the deterioration of their infant son over a period of days, possibly weeks. Some of the attending health care professionals would undoubtedly also find it psychologically difficult to watch the child die foreseeably an unnecessarily slow death. …. Given that a terminally sedated infant would have no surviving interests to speak of, the interests of these other parties matter. If his prolonged dying is harmful to them, a further quality-of-life based argument in favor of terminating the infant's life is established.

Meilaender’s argument is less closely argued in academic terms. First he appeals to compassion, the traditional duty of a physician to accompany a patient in his suffering, “ neither abandoning them by imposing treatments that are useless or excessively burdensome, nor abandoning them by deliberately aiming at their death”.

His second argument is more political than bioethical. He appeals to the liberal tradition of human equality:

If I seek to give ultimate authority over my life to others, I become something less than their equal. I join what John Locke called the “inferior ranks of Creatures,” and I make my person an object to be possessed and controlled by others. And the same is true when I give such authority over this child's life to others. Likewise, the person who carries out the euthanizing deed pulls rank and, in effect, exercises a more-than-human authority over the life of one who is, in fact, his moral and political equal. For us to try to exercise such authority is to pretend to be what we in truth are not: something other than beings of equal dignity. And that would be to lose one of the greatest achievements of our political tradition: an affirmation of equal dignity laboriously gained at great cost over centuries.
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December
06
  11:26:00 AM

Thai parliament votes to ban the surrogacy trade

Thailand’s interim parliament has voted in support of a bill to ban commercial surrogacy in the country.

National Legislative Assembly member Chet Siratharanon said the parliament approved the draft bill after a preliminary reading on Thursday. A finalised version of the bill is expected within the next 30 days.

The decision comes in the wake of a number of international scandals involving Thai surrogate mothers paid to carry the babies of foreigners.

In August, a Thai mother who carried twin babies for an Australian couple accused them of abandoning a baby boy with Down's syndrome while taking his healthy sister.

Following this scandal, a separate police investigation began into a Japanese man who authorities believe fathered at least 15 babies with different surrogate mothers.

Commercial surrogacy was technically restricted in Thailand in 1997 after the Medical Council of Thailand introduced strict regulations. However, these regulations have remained largely unenforced. It is only now that the government has begun to take action on the issue.  

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Psychologists criticised in CIA torture report
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