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Before I forget… July 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in media.
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For those as are interested once more one of our number, who goes by the pseudonym of Dónal, has been invited to discuss the Sunday Newspapers on Taste on NewsTalk 106-108fm this evening – hosted by Fionn Davenport.

Choon in…if you dare…

Dita Von Teese and the Guardian… Another day, another discourse… July 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Culture, Feminism.


Seeing as this is a week to present a critique of the Guardian and its attitude to women, how about an interview from last week by Hannah Pool with Dita Von Teese “queen of burlesque”? Is it me or was there a particularly censorious tone taken in the piece. Now I hasten to add I’m no fan of burlesque, and I loathe lap dancing and such like, but… I’m none too keen on prudishness dressed up in the language of ‘rights’ and this interview certainly wasn’t shy in posing questions such as:

Don’t you worry that while it might be liberating for you, there are lots of women who are not in nice clubs, who are not having a good time?

But a young girl looking at you won’t know about those bars. She will look at it as an adventure.

But you are encouraging people to see women as objects.

I hate the whole idea of burlesque clubs.

No. I don’t want to encourage it. [in response to the question ‘had she ever been?’]

I hate the women that go. I feel they are letting the side down.

There is no particular reason why these questions shouldn’t be asked, indeed quite the opposite. And yet…and yet. There doesn’t seem to be much effort to achieve some sort of engagment but instead a preformed, and perhaps somewhat ill-informed, viewpoint is taken from the outset. I haven’t seen quite such a clearly didactic approach adopted in questions say relating to women who wear religious inspired garb. And perhaps part of the problem is that all such manifestations of sexuality are seen as being part of a single seamless continuum, with stripping, prostitution at one end and burlesque close by. I’m not sure that the world works like that. But even if it does I think that it deserves a more serious appraisal than off the cuff editorialising by an interviewer, something that might bring in a broader range of voices to at least attempt to develop a more clear cut thesis.

Perhaps my dislike of burlesque is rooted in a dislike of the aesthetic, but… even still… I’m fairly sure it doesn’t encourage people to see women as objects in the way that lap-dancing objectifies women.

And also I cast my mind back to the Guardians treatment of The Full Monty, perhaps more objectionable in some ways than Dita Von Teese and all her pomps and works and we find it is described as ‘celebratory’…

Hmmm. It sure is different for boys.

Ed Moloney and the IRA ceasefires… July 6, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Irish Politics, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, Uncategorized.


Reading the Irish Times yesterday I noticed that Ed Moloney has uncovered yet another piece of information from his one size fits all theory that the roots of the IRA ceasefires were planted many many years before 1994 (incidentally his rather interesting work A Secret History of the IRA on just that topic is reprinted in a new and updated edition this month). A theory that implicitly ascribes a level of devious manipulation to the Adams leadership which, so it is purported, went over the heads of the ordinary decent members of the IRA and Sinn Féin to deliver a deal which led ultimately to the establishment of Stormont Mark II.

The piece of information that slots yet another brick in that wall is a leetter from Father Alex Reid to Charles Haughey which outlines – or so it is said – Adams ‘terms for an IRA ceasefire seven years before it happened’.

According to Moloney “within those terms it is possible to discern the principles – and compromises – that underlay what became the Belfast Agreement. The other point of significance is that it reveals that Mr Adams was actively contemplating a ceasefire and a wholly political strategy at a time when the rest of the IRA leadership was committed to intensifying violence. The letter serves to strengthen the view that Mr Adams has for many years been working to a pre-cooked agenda not necessarily shared by all his colleagues”.

Hmmm. Well we’ll return to these ‘points of significance’ in a moment, but what does the letter suggest are the outlines?

Fr Reid wrote: “These principles as I understand them may be set out as follows:

“1. The aim of ‘the armed struggle’ is to establish the right of all the Irish people to decide their own political future through dialogue among themselves. The establishment of a 32-county socialist republic is not therefore the aim of this struggle. From the Sinn Féin point of view this is a political ideal to be pursued and achieved by political strategies only.

“2. The British must in some formal and credible way declare their willingness to set aside the claim enshrined in the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 that they have in their own right the power of veto of the democratic decisions of the Irish people as a whole. In practice it would be sufficient for them to declare their willingness to set aside the Government of Ireland Act, 1920 in view of any agreements that the representatives of the people of Ireland in dialogue among themselves might make about their constitutional and political future.

“Such a declaration would set the scene for a ceasefire by the IRA.

All fair enough. It continues:

“This principle relates only to the right of veto which the British authorities claim in Ireland on the basis of the 1920 Act. It should not therefore be taken to mean that Sinn Féin want the British to withdraw from Ireland at the present time. On the contrary they accept and would even insist on the need for a continuing British presence to facilitate the processes through which the constitutional and political structures of a just and lasting peace would be firmly and properly laid by the democratic decisions of the Irish people as a whole.

“Once the representatives of all the Irish people, nationalist and unionist, could meet together in accordance with the principle of independence outlined in (2) above, all options for a settlement of the national question, for organising the constitutional and political structures of a just and lasting peace would be open for dialogue and decision.”

Moloney suggests that:

All this, of course, is exactly what happened: the British publicly declared their neutrality in Northern Ireland, allowed the local parties to make their own deal unhampered, and eventually amended the 1920 Act. On the republican side, the IRA called the promised ceasefire while Sinn Féin has accepted a continuing British presence and no longer talks about “a 32-county socialist republic”. In the shape of the Belfast and St Andrews’ agreements the party also made good its promise to embrace “all options” for a settlement and the implied principle of consent.

Yet, perhaps it is me, but isn’t there a touch of retrofitting the past to fit the thesis here? A number of thoughts strike me. Firstly it was hardly unreasonable to detach the ultimate ‘political’ goal of a 32-county socialist republic from an end to the armed struggle. Indeed one might argue that within the broad coalition of SF and the IRA which had socialist and nationalist wings (I use the terms advisedly, but I hope their sense comes across) this was only logical. Not all were wedded to the socialist Republic. Not all were entirely wedded to armed struggle. One could be detached from the other because ‘armed struggle’ (whatever some in Éirígí seem to believe) was never the absolute touchstone for the ‘socialist’ contingent.

Secondly, the overwhelming issue of pushing Britain to the sidelines, or as close as was possible, would account for (2.). And this would to some extent deal with the Gordian knot that was ‘consent’ and the Unionist veto. Now, however unsatisfactory for purists the GFA by running parallel referendums on both sides of the Border (albeit not quite on the same question) did provide for at least some measure of all-island validation for subsequent structures, and clearly significantly more than had ever been presented in the past, or more than dissidents could ever hope to garner particularly while they remained in a mode where they would not participate in any meaningful way in political contests. Whether all this could be foreseen by anyone in 1987 is a moot point.

Consider again when Moloney suggests that: The other point of significance is that it reveals that Mr Adams was actively contemplating a ceasefire and a wholly political strategy at a time when the rest of the IRA leadership was committed to intensifying violence. The letter serves to strengthen the view that Mr Adams has for many years been working to a pre-cooked agenda not necessarily shared by all his colleagues

There is a very different interpretation possible. This was during a period where there was continuous violence. There was clear indications of a stalemate between the security forces and PIRA, but a stalemate can continue indefinitely, that’s the point. This was during a period when Britain had one of the most intransigent administrations of modern times under Margaret Thatcher. This was a year after the Anglo-Irish Agreement where Unionism had been faced down – to a limited degree, and Republicanism had been yet again sidelined as irrelevant. Sinn Féin was far from the monolithic presence it became in the 1990s in the North.

Isn’t it possible to suggest that this was kite flying. A means perhaps of lifting the pressure to even a limited degree. Because…who in 1987 would seriously believe that an Irish government, much less a British government would deal with Sinn Féin, let alone the PIRA, that ceasefires were possible with an organisation so clearly engaged in prosecuting an armed campaign, that that organisation could compromise to the point of disbandment?

So perhaps this was just good politics. Throw out an idea. See if it comes back, and all the while continue with the campaign. There is no reason to impute Machiavellian motives (although whether this presents us with a better or worse picture of Adams et al is a different question entirely), no reason to see some grand strategy which was planned down to a detail and bore fruit along a predicted and predictable path by those arch-manipulators. Simply a situation where PSF sought to ‘broaden the battlefield’, engage with everyone it could and see what came up.

But then that wouldn’t sell books, nor would it serve a mythology of omniscience that recent political events south of the Border have brought into some question. Nor, and here is the curious part, also feed those who find the GFA anathema and who consider this analysis to be pretty much the truth. Their resentment at a resurgent PSF dwindles not a bit despite their (thankful) inactivity. And all this is grist to their mill.

But then conspiracy and betrayal are always more attractive prisms through which to interpret the world and events than the banality of mistake and misinterpretation.

The media discourse about IVF: desperate women, bad men… July 5, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Culture.
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An article in the G2 section of the Guardian yesterday reminded me yet again that there is a very special discourse concerning IVF, and those who of necessity must turn to it, within the media.

Let’s consider the article first. This was a fairly lavish four page spread which under the title Taking on the baby gods discussed new techniques in IVF.

It started with the proposition that:

IVF is expensive and harrowing, and carries significant health risks. That is why some fertility experts are turning to an alternative method called ‘mild IVF’, which they say is cheaper, safer and equally effective. But Britain’s most powerful fertility doctors remain to be convinced.

Then it noted that one – fortunately – very rare side effect of IVF hormone treatments used to stimulated the ovaries in order to produce eggs is a condition know as Ovarian Hyperstimulation Syndrome which ranges a spectrum from mild and unpleasant symptoms to death.

As the article notes:

The biggest risk factor is the hormonal drugs women are given, first to shut down their reproductive system – throwing them into a sudden and unpleasant temporary menopause – and then to stimulate their ovaries to produce multiple eggs instead of a single one, which can be surgically collected and fertilised with the partner’s sperm in a lab. It’s like slamming on the brakes in a cruising car and then whacking it into gear and putting your foot down hard.

This is entirely true. What is also entirely true is that studies show that the incidence of serious OHSS is exceedingly rare. How rare? We’ll come to that.

However, the article contends that:

Probably, nobody was to blame for … deaths. The fact is that IVF carries risks. That is not something most women, so desperate for a baby they will try anything, want to hear. They probably don’t hear it when they are told. But IVF, as it is usually practised today in the UK, is an experimental medical intervention and there is a chance of becoming ill as a result of it and a very rare possibility of death.

To counterpoint this the article suggests that:

The liberal use of drugs and the return of multiple embryos to the womb have been the norm for decades. But a growing band of fertility experts are now saying that it doesn’t have to be this way. Women can have a little gentle drug stimulation and just one single healthy embryo replaced, removing not only the risk of unpleasant side-effects but also the danger of multiple pregnancies, which can result in very sick babies.

and that :

This is “mild IVF”, and a recent paper in the Lancet showed that the results can be just as good as the more aggressive approach. Bart Fauser, a consultant at the University Medical Centre in Utrecht in the Netherlands, headed a study comparing the outcomes for 200 women given mild IVF treatment and a single embryo transfer, with those of 200 women who had the conventional drug dosing regime and two embryos put back in the womb. Those having mild IVF were given four (shorter) treatments while the others had three. Over the course of a year, 45% of both groups ended up with a baby. But mild IVF costs less. In the UK, such treatment might cost half as much as the usual technique.

And then the question is asked….

So why has it gained little more than a toehold in the UK? Can there be some truth in the popular image of the “baby gods” – the macho fertility experts who see the patient as a Petri dish or an incubator, little more than an essential piece of equipment in their medical experiments? It is difficult to understand why the expensive London clinics have not gone for minimal disturbance to a woman’s body. In any other field of medicine, the rule is to give the lowest possible dose of drugs and increase it if necessary. In IVF, amazingly, the recommended dosage is not stipulated in the doctors’ prescribing bible, the British National Formulary. These are the only drugs where safe limits are not listed. Fertility doctors do what they think fit.

Firstly, let me say that I actually think ‘mild IVF’ is a good thing. It makes sense to diminish the pressure on the body from hormone treatment. And IVF, while not quite the hell painted here, is a difficult, time consuming and frustrating business with no guarantee of success…it’s sort of the inverse of the gift that keeps on giving, more like the curse that keeps on taking…

But… I have a real problem with this article on four specific issues.

Firstly, I must admit I have some knowledge of this area, and while I would entirely agree that there is indeed an element of desperation to anyone who has to resort to IVF it is also true that the procedures are set within a framework of multiple consent forms, a considerable emphasis on the nature of the processes engaged in and the fact that there are risks. So it is not quite a question that ‘That is not something most women, so desperate for a baby they will try anything, want to hear’. (I particularly like the ‘anything’ in that sentence as if recourse to IVF were somehow the most cutting edge and risky activity possible).

Yet…and I was in hospital at Easter myself for a medical procedure which, like all invasive procedures, also carried a risk of serious and unpleasant complications. IVF is hardly more of an ‘experimental medical procedure’ (and here the article is curiously opaque as to precisely what it means by that term) having been practised widely for a quarter of a century. A further thought. The sort of procedures practised in Ireland and the UK are utterly mainstream – and moreover are overseen by the HFEA in the UK (and intriguingly the Irish clinics abide by HFEA standards). The US and Eastern Europe are a little more ‘experimental’, running to egg donation and various other techniques which ironically use less hormones, but not in terms of hormone protocols. OHSS in all its variants has an incidence of 1 to 5% in all IVF treatments utilising typical hormone treatments. For death rates I can only refer to a report [it’s in PDF format for those as worry about such things] commissioned for the UK HFEA which noted that:

I have made general enquiries and to my knowledge there have been two deaths in the
U.K. following OHSS. So far there have been in excess of 425,000 cycles of
stimulated IVF that have been undertaken in the U.K. (HFEA, Dr Peter Mills,
personal communication). Apparently there was a death in 2004 reported to the
HFEA, due to cerebral oedema and ischaemia, pulmonary embolus and pelvic vein
thrombosis, which were secondary to OHSS (HFEA, Dr Peter Mills, personal
communication). The other death was in about 1991, I believe the patient was
undergoing drainage of a pericardial effusion and suffered complications and
subsequently died. I also believe that the treatment received was ovarian stimulation
alone and not IVF. Data on the overall number of gonadotropin stimulated cycles for
ovulation induction, intrauterine insemination (IUI) and gamete intrafallopian transfer
(GIFT) are not available and so it is not possible to give an accurate incidence of
mortality from ovarian stimulation other than that for IVF. Thus the mortality from
OHSS in the U.K. currently appears to be 1:425,000 IVF cycles

One death is one death too many, and there is no cause for complacency on this issue whatsoever [I won’t make a comparison with other medical techniques, having looked it up the rate is very very low indeed, but the UK mortality rate from MRSA was 12.5 per half million per annum]. As already noted ‘mild IVF’ is a good thing but overstating the risk, as this article does by implication, appears part of the current media discourse.

Secondly, the article ignores one crucial aspect. There exist a group of women who can be termed ‘poor responders’ to fertility hormones. Generally, but not exclusively, these are women who are over 35, a point where egg production and quality decreases sharply (actually there is a strong body of evidence to suggest that post 30 also sees a dip). In order to produce eggs it is necessary in some of these cases to increase dosages. No ‘mild IVF’ is going to do the job here. Only an ‘aggressive’ regime will produce any results. Here the issue of risks becomes more significant, and yet, look again at the figures above.

Thirdly, there is the issue of the ‘baby gods’, “- the macho fertility experts”. Well, I can’t speak for the UK, but in Ireland and other European countries this is certainly not the experience where there is a preponderance of woman doctors involved in this area. And this I think is part of a discourse which seeks to pit ‘desperate women’ against ‘macho fertility experts’. I find this discourse demeaning and patronising, effectively presenting women as passive subjects in the process with limited or no autonomy.

I have known a number of women who have had to go through IVF and, while it has indeed been a difficult and frustrating experience both physically and mentally, the characterisation the media attempts to project appears to me to be wide of the mark. Nor are they supine but take an active and engaged role in the process. But the characterisation feeds into a broader societal discourse relating to women and reproduction, one which even from progressive sources (such as the Guardian) cannot quite resist falling back on more archaic concepts of how women act in certain situations and how at root women are ‘desperate’ for children at ‘any cost’ or risk to themselves. Not so.

And to conclude, there is one other aspect. As the Guardian article notes, but does not emphasise, there are reasons why the ‘mild IVF’ protocols are gaining greater acceptance in parts of Europe and that is economic. Simply put they are available in medical healthcare environments such as Holland where IVF is not considered an expensive and essentially voluntary add-on but as a fundamental right for women who require it. In such a context there is greater pressure on clinics to get results because the costs of treatment are paid for in the main by patients with little or no state subsidy or availability on the NHS.

Ironically another economic process, the falling UK birthrate has led to calls for wider free availability of IVF up to three cycles in order to bolster the future working population.

Abortion debate takes to the streets. July 4, 2007

Posted by franklittle in Bioethics, Feminism, Gender Issues, Irish Politics, Medical Issues, Religion, The Left.

There have been a number of good discussions on the Cedar Lounge about issues around abortion and the strength or weakness of the pro-choice lobby in Ireland. The latest contribution to the debate was WBS’s piece at the start of the week going through some of the contributions to the letters debate in the Irish Times.

But the last couple of weeks have seen the debate emerge from the sterile corridors of the Times and back onto the streets again to an extent not seen since the last abortion referendum, motivated no doubt on both sides by the Ms D case.

Last Saturday I went along to the pro-choice rally organised by Choice Ireland in Dublin’s city centre where a good crowd of a little under 200 heard Senator David Norris and likely Senator Ivana Bacik call for a the introduction of a woman’s right to choose in Ireland. Some pictures on Indymedia available here. Interestingly, there was a complete absence of party banners, with the exception of the Connolly Youth Movement of the Communist Party. I saw Labour, SWP, SP and Sinn Féin people but unusually for a city centre demo where everyone is normally fighting to get their banner to the front of the march, party badges were kept under wraps.

Pleased though I was to see the pro-choice movement back out on the streets, and as well as the demo Choice Ireland had a very successful couple of media interventions over the week, it needs to be seen in the context of the strength of the anti-choice forces in Ireland.

Youth Defence is currently concluding a ‘pro-life roadshow’ that has seen them hold a range of leaflet drops, demos, stalls and public meetings in 16 towns and cities across the country, culminating in a rally at the GPO in Dublin this Saturday with a public meeting in the evening ‘after Mass’ (Of course). Bear in mind too that this is merely one part of the anti-choice movement in Ireland, and not necessarily the strongest, though certainly the most prominent.

The roadshow has not been without controversy. Gardaí in Galway City shut down one of their information stalls and a Youth Defence demonstration outside a family planning clinic in Limerick was the subject of a peaceful counter-demonstration.

As Smiffy pointed out in a previous post on the subject there is some evidence of an emerging pro-choice majority in Irish society, certainly among 18-25 year olds according to a recent MRBI poll. Yet the growth in support for the pro-choice position has had little, if any, effect on the positions taken by the major political parties. Nor has it seen the emergence of a campaigning organisation that can match Youth Defence on the streets.

Choice Ireland holds out the possibility of being just such an organisation even if it is still very much in the first phase of growth. But the other problem is neatly summed up by Yeats. “The best lack all conviction while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Whatever about the rights and wrongs of the abortion argument, one cannot question the near fanatical determination of the anti-choice movement motivated in large part, though not entirely, by religious belief. And at one level, you have to admire their determination and commitment to what they see as saving lives.

Against this, the pro-choice movement relies less on emotional or faith based appeals but on what we would perceive as political concepts such as equality, feminism, rights and so on. All very correct, but it makes it harder perhaps to appeal to voters to back your cause and activists to get stuck in than something that gets to people in their gut.

How is the pro-choice movement to attract activists, most of whom if taken from the traditional left in Ireland have party or organisational commitments elsewhere? To compete with the likes of Youth Defence, does the pro-choice movement needs it’s own fanatics?

Porn and Comics. The EU refines its message. July 3, 2007

Posted by franklittle in European Politics, Film and Television, media, Media and Journalism.

Haven’t been able to blog for a couple of days and in my absence it is as I feared. The standard of intelligent debate and serious discussion has reached all-time highs.

Consequently, it’s worth me bringing it down a notch, lowering the tone so to speak, to look at the latest ideas from our friends in Brussels to make Europe interesting, appealing, perhaps even cool.

Today’s EU Observer reports that the EU Commission is broadcasting a 44 second video clip of orgasms and sex scenes taken from European cinema. Fans of Amelie will note numerous contributions from that film. Already the most watched video on the EU Commission’s recently launched EUtube network, their own version of YouTube, with 120,000 views, beating out the slightly less exciting second place video on EU humanitarian aid.

The article reports that there have been floods of complaint, in particular from Poland, concerned at the use of a scene involving two men, but the EU Commission is delighted with the project: “What can I say? It’s a question of taste. It doesn’t always have to be about press releases. These clips explain better what the EU is doing,” said EU communication spokesman Mikolaj Dowgielewicz.

The clip, for those interested to see ‘what the EU is doing’ can be found here.

Slightly dafter, is Operation Red Dragon, a comic book published by the Liberal Group of the European Parliament. It caters to that niche market of comic books fans who like their action and adventure laced with EU policymaking, with just a touch of romance. An attractive Liberal MEP, whose commitment to the Free Market is nauseatingly and repeatedly emphasised and who has a good line in cleavage baring dressing gowns, discovers that a country called Dong Fang (Resemblances to China, which include weapons, uniforms, terminology and pictures of Mao outside the Forbidden City being presumably unintentional) is breaking an EU arms embargo. Or is it a secret faction of the Dong Fang military plotting a coup against those leading the country who are committed to democracy and Free Trade?

As well as shoot-outs and thrilling chases, we’re treated to cracking dialogue in a plenary sitting of an EU Parliament Committee: “If everybody is in agreement, the Presidency is going to propose deferring the vote on the Correr Report in exchange for full cooperation with Parliament. There’s not much time. The session is about to start. I shall phone my Minister to inform him of your agreement.” It’s just like Batman.

There’s also the unintentionally hilarious line from the heroine: “Our citizens would not understand why we would sell our souls to secure trade agreements.” Really?

Anyway, I won’t spoil the ending. The comic is downloadable in pdf format (Artwork’s not bad actually) at the link above or you can wait until it’s in Forbidden Planet.

And while it’s hard to take this too seriously, it’s worth noting that the EU is clearly open-minded, even imaginative, about using whatever methods it can to push its agenda, and more particularly its perception of itself as socially and sexually liberal, committed to democracy and human rights, and emphasising the positive message of Free Trade. Smart people.

Joachim Fest, the Rotfrontkampferbund, political defection and a question… July 3, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.


A quick question. Skimming through “Plotting Hitler’s Death” by Joachim Fest, which is an interesting overview of the resistance within Germany to Hitler I was very struck by the following:

Many citizens reacted to the election with curiously mixed feelings: enthusiasm for the new regime alternated with anxiety; hope for more jobs gave way to renewed doubts; confusion was resolved by the sense of pride the Nazis so skillfully evoked. Occasionally, especially on the far left, entire street fighting organisations such as the Communist Rotfrontkampferbund switched side, joining ranks with those who ahd been their bitter enemies only days before…

The Rotfrontkampferbund, this was a sort of paramilitary organisation established by the KPD in the 1920s in part as a response to the rising power of the SA. Germany had been riven by streetfighting in the post 1918 period (as in the image above) between the left and right, and this was to manifest itself throughout the 1920s as well.

Fest is an interesting character coming from the conservative, anti-Nazi right. His father, a school teacher, was a staunch opponent of the Nazi regime from the start and was implacably opposed to Fest even joining the Wehrmacht to avoid being conscripted into the Waffen SS.

One significant aspect of his approach to the historiography of the period was a belief that Germans knew the reality of the Nationalist Socialist state in its entirety. Indeed he excoriated Gunter Grass when it became known that he had been a member of the Waffen SS in the latter part of the war. His ire was reserved for Grass because he concealed the truth about his activities.

Certainly Fest was no friend of the left, so therefore his view of the period might well be coloured by his viewpoint. And his account certainly underplays the admittedly rather diffuse resistance that KPD remnants put up.

In any event, any slippage to the Nazi’s in 1933 would have been more than matched by traffic the other way in both parts of the divided Germany in 1945-7. Political defection is a curious business. To move slowly in one direction along the political spectrum is an almost natural process and many of us can trace the evolution (or devolution) of our political thought by just such travels in the past. But it is where there are significant jumps from one point to another than something much more puzzling is apparent. The Eoghan Harris-style shift from one position to another entirely antithetical to the first. Even the recent ‘defection’ of a Conservative MP to the Labour party is remarkable. Why not stop at the – seemingly – intermediate position of the Liberal Democrats, unless of course other factors intervene, most obviously the relationship to power. Nor does defection automatically mean isolation and abandonment in this kinder, gentler political era. Shaun Woodward isn’t doing so badly for a man who (at least partially) saw the light in the relatively recent past.
But still, shifting from Communist to National Socialist. That’s quite a trick and the self-justifications would be interesting to hear. I’m wondering is this correct that certain elements detached and joined the National Socialists?

They’re back! The embryo, stem cell research, and the definition of the human… July 2, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Bioethics, Science.

The letters page of the Irish Times is rumbling with that eternal argument, just when (human) life begins. And who is responsible for this unseemly dispute. Well, a most unlikely participant in the debate, Dr. Keith Lockitch of the Ayn Rand Institute (Irvine, California), who on the 27th noted in a letter to the Irish Time (clearly the IT is no Skibbereen Eagle and the Ayn Rand Institute is paying very close attention indeed*):

Contrary to the claims of President Bush, there is nothing unethical about destroying embryos in the course of scientific research. An embryo is a potential, not an actual, human being, just as canvas is a potential, not an actual, work of art. It is a primitive cluster of cells, which is no more unethical to destroy than the cells that make up one’s appendix.

Calling an embryo “human life” is an evasion of the distinction between a mass of undifferentiated cells in a test tube and an actual, living human being. Only the mystical doctrines of religion, which hold that a human being is, not a biological entity with certain natural properties – an independent organism possessing a rational faculty – but a transcendent soul temporarily trapped in a body, could cloud that distinction. Embryonic stem cell research could improve the lives of millions. In an effort to obscure the anti-life consequences of his opposition to such research, the president cited new discoveries that suggest scientists might one day be able to create pluripotent cells from non-embryonic cells, supposedly making the “unethical” destruction of embryonic cells unnecessary. But human welfare demands that scientists pursue every avenue that promises to realise the potential of stem cell technology – not abandon embryonic stem cell research in order to assuage faith-based objections.

Interestingly Lockitch opened the floodgates.

Fr. Séamus Murphy S.J. weighed in with

[Lockitch] holds that an embryo is not a living human being, but a mere “primitive cluster” or “mass” of undifferentiated cells.

Yet the embryo is not any old heap of undifferentiated cells, but a cell-grouping of a very particular kind, or an adult human being would not be its long-term outcome.

He says that an embryo is a potential, not an actual, human being. Yet the living embryo exists and is therefore “actual”, so it must be an actual living something, and that can only be human. One can’t dodge that by talk about “potential”, for the embryo can’t be a potential donkey or dahlia: its only potential is human.

He doesn’t understand Aristotle’s potential/actual distinction.

It’s not a way of separating things into two categories, for potential/actual go together, being different aspects of the one reality. The embryo is a “potential” human being only in the trivial sense that it is capable of further development, and that is true of all humans for much of their lives.

Aristotle mistakenly thought that the living embryo or foetus became a human being gradually, going through plant and animal stages first, and his view influenced Aquinas and other Christians. Today, it is curious how that old-fashioned view is still echoed by those who claim that one “becomes” a person or human being by degrees.

Gerry White of TCD Law School turned to the surprising quarter of Peter Singer to justify the following contentions:

First, in response to his simple assertion that the embryo is a potential, as distinct from an actual, human being because it is a mass of undifferentiated cells or a primitive cluster of cells, may I quote the controversial philosopher, Peter Singer:

“The liberal search for a morally crucial dividing line between the new-born baby and the fetus has failed to yield any event or stage of development that can bear the weight of separating those with a right to life from those who lack such a right, in a way that clearly shows fetuses to be in the latter category at the stage of development when most abortions take place. The conservative is on solid ground in insisting that the development from the embryo to the infant is a gradual process.”

An old friend of the CLR – well, friend might be the wrong term, but someone who has been mentioned almost fondly hereabouts – Prof. William Reville, of the Irish Times and UCC Department of Biochemistry suggested that:

Dr Keith Lockitch seems confused, which is somewhat surprising seeing that he works in an institute devoted to the study of philosophy. He states: “an embryo is a potential, not an actual, human being, just as a canvas is a potential, not an actual, work of art”. Is Dr Lockitch not aware that an embryo, in its natural environment, will develop into a baby, whereas a canvas left in a studio will never develop into a painting?

Well, Reville may well be right, but I know from personal experience that not every embryo develops even in ‘natural conditions’ to becoming a child. Quite often not any. Indeed statistically it is now known that the vast majority do not and that the human body sheds embryo’s with a gloomy profligacy – gloomy that is if one is to follow the logical conclusion regarding the nature of the embryo that he implies.

It is left to Sé D’Alton in the Irish Times today to note that:

Prof. Gerry Whyte, (June 29th) quotes Prof Peter Singer in refutation of Dr Keith Lockitch’s defence of stem cell research, on the basis that the cluster of cells destroyed in the process of such research is a potential, rather than an actual, human being. However, Prof Singer’s quoted conclusion that “liberals” cannot demonstrate that the foetus is simply a potential human being relates – as Prof Whyte himself indicates – to “the stage of development when most abortions take place”.

This is, of course, a much later stage than that at which blastocysts are destroyed in the process of stem cell research.

And continues…

What Prof Whyte does not quote is Prof Singer’s conclusions that abortion is “much less serious” than killing human beings and that the destroying of blastocysts is even less ethically problematic than abortion.

The problem is that unless one takes an absolutist line, these discussions fall apart on examination. Stephen Barrett also writing a letter in the Irish Times today argues that:

The core of the ethics issue is whether it is justifiable to cause processes in a cell cluster to cease that might otherwise in favourable conditions become something we would designate human.

If that wholly mechanistic potential did not exist within the cluster of cells we call an embryo, then there would be no issue of ethics worth debating.

In a way he is correct. Everything revolves around the definition we ascribe to the embryo and I’m not for a second pretending there is no debate here.

And for all of that, there are grey areas. How ‘human’ is a collection of cells, how divisible is ‘humanity’? How much should the future potential humanity of an collection of cells weigh upon its treatment? Actually there are other interesting questions that open up. There is some evidence that other cells when subjected to processes are also open to change in a way which may lead to them being used in IVF and other procedures, for example as a replacement for sperm. Doesn’t that imply that within every human all cells contain this apparently pivotal ‘potential’ and if so how does that impact on the arguments arrayed in all their glory above?

But what I find odd about this discussion is the idea that if the ‘humanity’ of the embryo is not upheld somehow that impacts upon other areas. That the lack of an absolute at one stage necessarily leads to … well … euthanasia to put it at its most extreme. My own view is one that judges these issues on a case by case analysis rather than a line which says that this is just a spectrum of sameness when neither reality nor practice pretends that it is. In my own experience I have known those close to death where food (by intravenous drip) has been withdrawn because it is thought unecessary. Such a decision flies in the face of an absolutist belief in ‘life’.

And there is so much that is open to question and unamenable to resolution that the only certainty is that we can expect such debates to continue indefinitely.

* actually on reflection that sentence makes no sense at all, but you know what I’m getting at…

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