Tales of atrocities emerging from the regions captured by the Islamic State, or ISIS, or the Caliphate, are already legion. There have been beheadings, crucifixions, mass executions, expulsion of Shia and Christian families unless they convert, burned churches.
You could believe almost anything about these guys. But something sounded a bit fishy about claims of female genital mutilation in Thursday’s Guardian. A UN official told reporters: "We have current reports of imposition of a directive that all female girl children and women up to the age of 49 must be circumcised.”
Even more sinister was a report in BasNews, a Kurdish website: “The Spokesman of Mosul Police Ahmed Obaydi told BasNews: ‘Baghdadi’s decision to have all women circumcised is, as he claims, to prevent immorality and promote Islamic attitudes among Muslims. The decision was made by Baghdadi as a ‘gift’ for people in Mosul.’”
Something tells me that this will be proven false. The Islamic State has denied it (via Twitter) and the Guardian was unable to verify the claims. Bad as the Caliphate is, this is probably an urban myth created by the embattled Syrian government to scare off donors to the caliphate.
This is remarkably like the ghoulish stories of harvesting organs from prisoners of war which have accompanied conflicts in Kosovo, Iraq, Syria and Palestine. For instance, an article on an opposition website called The Syrian Observer has reported trafficking by government officials:
“… a thief crashed into a house in a luxurious Damascus suburb [in 2008] and discovered a warehouse full of frozen organs, ready to be sent around the world. The thief turned himself over to the authorities and reported the place. After monitoring the house for hours, police managed to arrest the criminals, thus explaining a series of mysterious attacks going back years. As the story unfolded, the names of high-ranking members of the Syrian regime began to pop up and the story suddenly disappeared from the local news.”
There could be some truth in a story like this, as organ trafficking does happen in these countries. But it is just as likely to be a fabrication aimed at smearing the Assad regime.
Perhaps there is a paper for an ambitious young academic in these dark tales – bioethics in information warfare. We all feel a deep horror when confronted with the violation of bodily integrity – rape, first of all, but also FGM or being a quarry for organs. It is a fear that can be exploited for political ends.
If I am to be completely candid, editing BioEdge can, at times, be a bit depressing. It has its bright spots, but often enough we traffic in knavery, obfuscation, mendacity, cruelty, greed and even homicide. It comes with the territory, I suppose, so I mustn’t complain.
However, there are bright spots, like indulging myself in Yes, Minister clips on YouTube when we need to illustrate articles about government policy. Since so many stories in BioEdge are related to committee reports, politicians’ bluster and legislative debates, I find the cynical humour of this classic BBC series quite refreshing. Here are a few of my favourite quotes.
Activist: “There is nothing special about man, Mr Hacker [the minister]. We’re not above nature. We’re all part of it. Men are animals too, you know.” Hacker: “I know that, I’ve just come from the House of Commons.” ~ Political Animals
"Solved problems aren't news. Tell the press a story in two halves - the problem first and the solution later. Then they get a disaster story one day and triumph story the next." ~ Party Games
"The surprising things about academics is not that they have their price, but how low that price is." ~ Doing The Honours
"Reorganizing the Civil Service is like drawing a knife through a bowl of marbles." ~ The Whiskey Priest
"Press statements are not delivered under oath." ~ A Real Partnership
"The bench of bishops should have a proper balance between those who believe in God and those who don't." ~ The Bishop's Gambit
Sir Humphrey [the departmental head]: If you want to be really sure that the Minister doesn't accept it, you must say the decision is "courageous". Bernard [the minister’s private secretary]: And that's worse than "controversial"? Sir Humphrey: Oh, yes! "Controversial" only means "this will lose you votes". "Courageous" means "this will lose you the election"! ~ The Right to Know
Sir Humphrey: Bernard, Ministers should never know more than they need to know. Then they can't tell anyone. Like secret agents; they could be captured and tortured. Bernard: [shocked] You mean by terrorists? Sir Humphrey: By the BBC, Bernard. ~ Jobs for the Boys
Hacker: Are you saying that winking at corruption is government policy? Sir Humphrey: No, no, Minister! It could never be government policy. That is unthinkable! Only government practice. ~ The Moral Dimension
Bernard: That's one of those irregular verbs, isn't it? I give confidential security briefings. You leak. He has been charged under section 2a of the Official Secrets Act. ~ Man Overboard
In 2004 voters in California passed Proposition 71, a ballot measure which set up the California Institute for Regenerative Medicine (CIRM) and allotted US$3 billion in funding over ten years.
With California almost broke at the time, its prisons overflowing, its schools underfunded, its universities on a starvation diet, this was not an initiative which made a lot of sense – except that the Bush Administration was refusing to fund embryonic stem cell research.
Californians were told that life-saving science was being held hostage to political conservatism and religious dogma. Embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning would cure diseases ranging from cancer to HIV/AIDS to mental health disorders. If the Feds wouldn't support it, California had to step forward. So 59 percent of voters supported the establishment of the CIRM. Why wouldn’t they? The official voter information guide said that “Proposition 71 is about curing diseases and saving lives”. Who could argue with that?
Ten years later, the CIRM is gearing up to ask voters for another $5 billion in 2016.
Unfortunately for the CIRM, the most impressive advances in stem cell science during that time happened elsewhere. It was a Japanese researcher who won the Nobel Prize for stem cell science.
And more importantly, there have been no cures. “Almost every country would be jealous of what they've got in California,” Christine Mummery, a scientist from the Netherlands, told Nature recently. The CIRM has great scientists, the best facilities, the most funding, hundreds of scientific articles. But says Dr Mummery, “they haven't cured a patient, which is the critique”.
The total cost to the Californian taxpayer will be $3 billion for research approved in 2004 plus $3 billion interest plus $5 billion in 2016 plus $5 billion interest. That's $16 billion. It seems like an expensive consolation prize for the CIRM's scientists for not having won a Nobel. My advice to Californians is: don't do it.
Most of our readers probably live in countries where bioethics often revolves around the proper use of sophisticated medical technologies. My attention was drawn this week to a case in Sudan, where engagement with the technology is fairly simple: shackles and a noose.
At the centre of this case is Meriam Ibrahim, the Sudanese wife of an American citizen. In May, while she was heavily pregnant with her second child, she was found guilty of apostasy from Islam and sentenced to 100 lashes and death as soon as she weaned the baby. She refused to renounce her faith.
The Islamic government in Sudan interprets apostasy with a great deal of latitude. Ms Ibrahim was born to a Coptic Orthodox mother and a Muslim father who deserted the family when she was six. She was raised as a Christian but in the eyes of the Islamic state, she remains a Muslim. Marrying a Christian constitutes apostasy in Sharia law.
The cruelty of her confinement suggests that Sharia law also presents bioethical issues. Ms Ibrahim gave birth in jail but remained shackled throughout her labour. "I gave birth chained," she said. "Not cuffs – but chains on my legs. I couldn't open my legs so the women had to lift me off the table. I wasn't lying on the table." Now she believes that her baby is disabled because of the difficult birth. "I don't know in the future whether she'll need support to walk or not."
After an enormous amount of pressure, Ms Ibrahim was released from prison in June. But after she bought a ticket to the US, she ended up in jail once again. She is still awaiting permission to leave. A UNESCO chair for biosciences ethics was established at the University of Khartoum in 2012. I wonder if the University would be interested in looking into Ms Ibrahim’s case.
Archduke Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated 100 years ago today in Sarajevo. Within weeks the world was at war. In another four years some ten million soldiers and seven million civilians would be dead. Wars are a great time for innovation in many areas, but not in bioethics. My impression is that the basic principle of bioethics in “the Great War” was “whatever it takes to win”.
Poison gas, for instance, was banned by international conventions in 1899 and 1907. Yet it was used by all the belligerents. An English general put it nicely:
“It is a cowardly form of warfare which does not commend itself to me or other English soldiers. We cannot win this war unless we kill or incapacitate more of our enemies than they do of us, and if this can only be done by our copying the enemy in his choice of weapons, we must not refuse to do so.”
But perhaps we can learn something from World War I. Twenty-first Century bioethics has two main themes. One is autonomy and there’s precious little of that in the Great War. It was a time of massification and state dominance.
But the other is how to use technology without losing our humanity. In this respect, World War I is a cautionary tale. Before 1914 technology was esteemed as the path to peace and prosperity. It quickly became apparent that technology could become a death-dealing juggernaut which devoured men and spat them out. Science and scientists became tools for destruction.
I think that we need to be reminded of that today. The pre-War chemistry laboratories which produced so many useful products also produced phosgene and mustard gas. Our knowledge of cellular biology and genetics can be life-saving but also deeply inhumane. It’s good to learn from the past.
There have been a few moments in my life when I wished that I could speak Czech, which may be the most difficult of the Slavic languages. Today was one of them, as I tried to investigate a storm in a teacup in a Czech bioethics journal.
A senior university lecturer and Czech government adviser, 78-year-old Miroslav Mitloehner, has been sacked from his positions over the views he expressed in Časopis zdravotnického práva a bioetiky (Journal of Medical Law and Bioethics).
Mr Mitloehner’s argument was a familiar one: that children born with a severe disability should be left to die. He explains in the abstract: “It should be possible to abandon the effort to save lives (even when there is a chance of survival) when the malformations of the neonates are so severe that they exclude the future possibility for meaningful and conscious human existence.”
This is not just a common argument; it is effectively legal in the Netherlands and it is a common practice in many other countries.
Unfortunately tact must not be among Mr Mitloehner’s finer qualities for he used a word to describe these children which has been translated as “freaks”. Disability activists exploded and Mr Mitloehner became an unemployed bioethicist. (Here is where fluency in Czech would come in handy: I believe the offending word was “podivín”.)
By some stroke of good fortune, the editors of Časopis zdravotnického práva a bioetiky were able to dissociate themselves from Mr Mitloehner without repudiating his widely accepted ideas. They discovered that he had published the same article in another journal in 1986, so they have banned him from the journal. They did not apologize for the crude views.
I have learned an important lesson from this imbroglio: language matters in discussing infanticide. If babies are called “freaks”, you will lose your job. If you speak respectfully about killing them, you will (like Peter Singer) get awards from your government.
Perhaps the most thrilling moment of the 2014 World Cup in Brazil has already passed. Although most television stations missed it, a paraplegic man delivered the opening kick using an exoskeleton. It was an amazing feat of technology which promises terrific benefits for disabled people. I wish all the teams well, but the jubilant look on the face of 29-year-old Juliano Pinto may have signalled the most important kick of the entire tournament.
One of our readers recently complained that BioEdge was running too many articles on surrogacy and euthanasia. I am pleased to announce that my conscience is clear on the former; there are no articles on surrogacy this week.
However, it is hard to avoid the latter. This week euthanasia was legalised in Quebec -- for the first time in North America -- and a nurse in Belgium has been arrested for having killed 40 or more patients out of compassion.
“I want to congratulate ourselves as parliamentarians,” said one politician. “Quebec is a beautiful society, and again today Quebec has just shown that we are really, really a different society.” I cannot say that I share her optimism. A law which allows one group in society to take the lives of others out of the eye of the law and the public is open to abuse.
Exhibit A this week is the Australian assisted suicide activist, Dr Philip Nitschke. Police in Melbourne have questioned him about a suicide pact by two elderly women (which we did not report to keep from overloading the newsletter). They had used equipment obtained from him and recommended by him (although he was not directly involved). Dr Nitschke’s attitude towards the law is consistent: it is an ass. He shows his contempt by helping people to commit suicide, but without stepping across the line into criminality. There will always be doctors like him who believe that any law is too restrictive. If euthanasia is legalised, will they keep pushing the boundaries further and further out?
Exhibit B is extraordinary revelations in Belgium, where a nurse who was also a Catholic deacon used his privileged position to kill scores of people, probably without their consent. There will always be twisted people like him. If euthanasia is legalised, will there be more of them?
Can it be wise to follow Quebec’s lead if we can foresee that more half-deranged and fully-deranged minds like these will be encouraged to embark upon private crusades to drown the world with compassion?
Another challenge to be faced by bioethics in the decades ahead is the downstream consequences of falling birth rates.
Once fertility begins to fall, it keeps falling to levels which once seemed (sorry) inconceivable. The replacement birth rate is 2.1 children per woman. But in South Korea, parts of Spain, and Russia it has fallen below 1.3. At that rate, population begins to decline fairly rapidly. A small population could have big political consequences.
This worries the leaders of Iran. The birth rate in Iran has fallen more swiftly than anywhere else in the world – from 6.4 in 1986 to a current low of 1.8. When they look into their crystal ball, they see a weak and depopulated nation.
This is why the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, recently released a 14-point plan to reverse decades of propaganda for small families and double his country’s population to 150 million. His proposals include: increasing the birth rate to more than 2.3; lowering the age of marriage; an Islamic-Iranian lifestyle and opposing undesirable aspects of the Western lifestyle; and providing treatment for both male and female infertility.
A bill is already being drafted to ban abortions and sterilisations. Government support for family planning and contraceptives has already been discontinued. A program offering free vasectomies has been terminated.
For Westerners like me, the social policy and politics of a theocratic country like Iran are quite mysterious. But if its rulers are as impatient and stubborn as the media makes them out to be, they may try to impose pro-natal policies, lest they drift into geopolitical irrelevance. Today most bioethics deals with issues relating to having fewer children. What happens when women are pressured into having more children? What dilemmas will bioethicists face then?
I wonder if the next frontier in the practical side of bioethics will be elder care. With the number and proportion of over-65s growing everywhere, opportunities for abusing defenceless elderly are multiplying.
Take the scandal in Mississippi over its June 3 Republican Senate primary. The incumbent is 76-year-old Thad Cochran, a 36-year veteran of the Senate with a thatch of white hair. In the eyes of Tea Party Republicans the Senator is extremely liberal. And extremely old. Money is pouring into the state to knock Cochran off his perch and replace him with a 41-year-old breath of fresh air, Chris McDaniel, a state senator.
However, some of Mr McDaniel’s supporters have been too eager to prove just how decrepit Senator Cochran is. A pro-McDaniel blogger, Clayton Kelly, entered a nursing home where Senator Cochran’s bed-ridden wife Rose, who suffers from dementia, is being cared for. He took photos of her, added them to a video, and posted it on the internet. The message: an old liberal guy with a ailing wife shouldn’t represent the great state of Mississippi. The strategy has backfired. Senator Cochran is holding his own after the invasion of his wife’s privacy. Mr Kelly has been charged with "exploiting a vulnerable adult". Two other men have also been arrested.
Mr McDaniel has been reduced to complaining that Senator Cochran is exploiting a “sick individual” (ie, Kelly) for electoral advantage. Since this is precisely what Kelly did to Mrs Cochran, it’s hard to see how this will get traction with voters. The breath of fresh air has been tainted by a burp from the sewer.
Another week of mud-slinging in American electioneering. For media junkies, it’s very entertaining and will soon be forgotten. But it may foreshadow a society where the elderly are routinely discriminated against, exploited, vilified and abused. Geriatric bioethics will be a growth area.