Thursday, February 28, 2013

German Children to Know Sperm Donor Fathers

A German court has ruled that sperm donor children have a right to know the identity of their biological fathers.

"The interest of the plaintiff in ascertaining her parentage is assessed to be higher than the interests of the defence and the right to a nondisclosure of donor information," the court ruled in the case of a 21-year-old woman known as Sarah P.

The Federal Association of Reproductive Medical Centres was pleased with the decision. It said that doctors would also benefit, as they could not be deemed culpable of breaching patient-doctor confidentiality when they informed the children of sperm donors.

"The government has to introduce a register in which all the sperm donors and the children are kept permanently. At the moment these documents are kept by the doctors who are responsible for the treatment," said Dr. Andreas Hammel, who runs a sperm bank in Cologne. About 100,000 children have been born in Germany through sperm donation.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Quote of the Week - Mark Noll

"The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind." -- Historian Mark Noll

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Poor Care of Elderly in UK Govt. Hospitals

Doctors, nurses, politicians, bureaucrats, patients and the public, in short, everyone in the UK, have been stunned by the results of two inquiries into dreadful conditions at a hospital in the Midlands.

A report in 2010 into Stafford Hospital found that hundreds of patients had died unnecessarily and that conditions were sometimes unspeakably bad. Some patients were left in excrement-soaked sheets and some had to drink from dirty flower vases because nurses failed to bring them water.

A second report by a leading barrister, Robert Francis, into the causes of this disaster makes depressing reading. He found that there had been a total collapse of the system at the Mid Staffordshire NHS [National Health Service] Foundation Trust, which is responsible for running the hospital. In the report, which was released earlier this month, Mr Francis writes:

"This is a story of appalling and unnecessary suffering of hundreds of people. They were failed by a system which ignored the warning signs and put corporate self-interest and cost control ahead of patients and their safety. Patients were let down by the Mid Staffordshire NHS Foundation Trust. There was a lack of care, compassion, humanity and leadership. The most basic standards of care were not observed, and fundamental rights to dignity were not respected."

Mr Francis's brief was to identity the reasons for the breakdown in care. He made 290 recommendations to change the toxic culture at the hospital and to make sure that patient care comes first, ahead of financial targets.

Some of the more important recommendations are that failure to comply with standards should be a criminal offence if death or serious injury results; misleading patients, the public or regulators should be a criminal offence; nursing staff should be trained to give compassionate care; and a NHS leadership college should be established to ensure high standards.

The reaction of the UK government was entirely predictable. Prime Minister David Cameron denounced the enormity of the failure, apologised to patients and their families and promised root and branch reform. However, the scepticism of Mr Francis about whether this will actually happen is frightening.

"The experience of many previous inquiries is that, following the initial courtesy of a welcome and an indication that its recommendations will be accepted or viewed favourably, progress in implementation becomes slow or non-existent...

"Stafford was not an event of such rarity or improbability that it would be safe to assume that it has not been and will not be repeated or that the risk of a recurrence was so low that major preventative measures would be disproportionate. The consequences for patients are such that it would be quite wrong to use a belief that it was unique or very rare to justify inaction."

The reports can be downloaded at the Inquiry's website.

Monday, February 25, 2013

Not Everyone is Optimistic about BAM

Neuroethics looks to be the open field for bioethicists after President Obama's state of the union address in which he optimistically referred to neuroscience as having a payback to the American economy. He said: "Every dollar we invested to map the human genome returned $140 to our economy -- every dollar," he said. "Today our scientists are mapping the human brain to unlock the answers to Alzheimer's. They're developing drugs to regenerate damaged organs, devising new materials to make batteries 10 times more powerful. Now is not the time to gut these job-creating investments in science and innovation."

President Obama appears to have been referring to the Brain Activity Map project (BAM) which is estimated to cost US$3 billion over 10 years. Such a narrow focus could mean that funding would dry up for other neuroscience projects.

Neuroscientist Christopher Chabris, of Union College, New York, expresses skepticism in his blog. He believes that 10 years is not be long enough to map every neuron in the drosophila brain. He also questions why $3 billion should be spent on a single project. Would the money be better spent on a thousand projects costing $5 million each? The return on investment for the Human Genome Project, which is 14,000% according to President Obama, may have been exaggerated. It turns out that the ROI figure was plucked from a report made by a company which makes equipment used in life science research. "I find this figure hard to believe, not to say preposterous," writes Dr Chabris.

The BAM would yield fascinating results, he says. "But the sheer size of a full BAM project might focus our attention and hopes on the BAM as the be-all and end-all of neuroscience, and distract the field from devoting energy to those other levels."
Scientists hope that the BAM project will lead to discoveries about diseases like Parkinson's, autism and Alzheimer's. It will certainly underscore the need for on-going ethical analysis. 

The Center for Cognitive Liberty and Ethics notes, "Emerging technologies that map the brain, reveal 'guilty knowledge,' and expose patterns associated with disfavored behavior raise thorny questions of law and ethics."

The CCLE article continues: "Three University of Pennsylvania professors grapple with these questions in a lucid article that appears in the June issue of the IEEE Spectrum, a monthly journal of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers. "Bioethics and the Brain," although written for specialists, is refreshingly free of the jargon and bad writing that mars so many academic publications.

Kenneth R. Foster, professor of Bioengineering; Paul Root Wolpe, in the department of Psychiatry in the university's Center for Bioethics; and Arthur L. Caplan, chairman of the Department of Medical Ethics, explain that microelectronics and medical imaging are bringing us closer to a world where mind reading is possible and some blindness is overcome with visual prostheses -- but one in which we may not want to live.

The authors write: "Researchers may one day find brain activity that correlates with behavior patterns such as tendencies toward alcoholism, aggression, pedophilia, or racism."

Racism? United Press International asked Caplan about that in a phone interview.

"Let's say I show you a series of photographs of people from around the world," he replied. "And every time a black face appears, you get a different brain pattern. (That is, different from a baseline pattern.) I start to suspect that you are different in your reactions to blacks than you are to others -- or whatever the group is. ...

"Does it mean that this bubbles to the surface and you act in racist ways? No. But subtle differences might silently shape your behavior.

"It may make sense sometimes to have a different reaction (to various racial types). ... But this does give you a chance to peek in and see what's going on. ... What Freud used to talk about as the unconscious, which I think is in pretty solid disrepute, may get a revival from this kind of brain examination."

The article presents the case of Nancy, a hypothetical airline pilot of the future, who arrives promptly for her routine physical. She is asked to place her head in a large metallic device while a video screen flashes a series of images before her eyes: the inside of a 747 cockpit, a view of a target seen through a rifle's scope, a chemical formula for polyester, a photo of Bill Clinton.

Later, her supervisor and a Federal Aviation Administration official inform Nancy that her brain images show that she might develop schizophrenia and that she has also has a surprising familiarity with assault rifles. The FAA revokes her pilot's license, and the airline fires her.

This fictitious scenario alludes to technologies that already exist in their basic form. Electrical activity in the brain can reveal the contents of a person's memory, and the same electrical stimulation technologies that enable some deaf people to hear can be engineered to control behavior.

These technologies have obvious and immediate application in criminal investigation. For example, a guilty suspect's brain might show recognition of a crime scene that an innocent suspect would have no knowledge of.

The polygraph (lie detector) measures physiologic responses such as heart rate, sweating, and respiration that are only indirectly related to brain function. But the microvolt signals of the new technologies come directly from the brain's function. Even so, the new tests do not measure truthfulness but seek to determine whether the subject has a particular memory.

Why, then, have the CIA, the FBI, and the Secret Service found such techniques to be of little use in screening for potential spies, terrorists, or other security risks?

"It's just not ready yet," Caplan replied. "The information that correlates complicated behavior with brain states is not developed, but it's coming. It's a little like genomics, where people look for correlation between a gene and, say, a predisposition to lung cancer. ... The false positive rates and the false negative rates are both too high right now."

The article also describes the capabilities of functional magnetic resonance imaging, or fMRI, which shows which parts of the brain are active by tracking changes in blood oxygen levels. Using fMRI, Psychiatry Prof. Daniel D. Langelben of the University of Pennsylvania found highly significant correlations between lying and truth telling and the metabolic activity in the region of the brain important to paying attention and monitoring errors.

MRIs and positron emission tomography, which uses radioactive tracers to image brain activity, can disclose subtle changes in brain structure and function that correlate to disease -- including mental illness. But who should receive pre-symptomatic testing or prophylactic treatment for such diseases? Relatives of those with symptoms? Those like Nancy, with particular jobs?

And what are the legal implications for employment screening? Caplan said an employer's attitude might be: "I don't care if it's accurate. I took a look at your brain, and you're not working here."

Caplan said that to forestall predatory peddlers of "truth machines," it's not to soon to start pushing for five things that "need to be happening" in bioethics.

The first is setting standards for what is ready to be used in the marketplace and what is not. Because this involves issues of accuracy and error rates, scientists rather than politicians should set the standards, he said.

Second, Caplan said, "We need to have some agreement about the admissibility of this evidence in court." Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys should be introduced to the technology and confer. A defense attorney might ask the circumstances under which he could say: "My client may have done it, but he has a bad amygdala (a part of the brain that controls fear and arousal), so don't punish him." The new technologies also could be used in considering the suitability of an inmate for parole.

A third ethical issue is that of consent. "Must consent be given to this sort of brain testing?" Caplan asked. The professor presumes consent, but said compulsory testing might be necessary for national security reasons or for certain types of job screening. The conditions for these exceptions must be explicit, however.

Caplan was asked if withholding consent would be used against a defendant in a criminal case. He agreed that such a refusal would affect a jury regardless of a judge's instructions. The professor said he doesn't care how society establishes its standards, "but let's set the moral framework up right now." The courtroom is not the place to argue, he told UPI.

He said this became clear in determining what data are sufficient to establish paternity. "We had to hack it out in court, case by case." Experts could have set standards and guidelines, Caplan said.

A fourth ethical issue is access. "If you're going to build pictures of the brain, you can also build data bases just like you do genetic ones," Caplan said. "We could have pictures of everybody's head on file. Is that a good idea? Who would run it? How would you get access to such a thing? Somebody may say, 'I want to take a picture of my head to show you that I'm innocent, but it may cost something.' Will it be just a gimmick for the rich? Should we insist that everybody have fair access if it comes up for legal matters?"

Fifth, and most controversial, are the ethical considerations surrounding the testing of children.

"Parents might say: 'I want to find out if little Johnny is good at the violin. I'm not going to waste lessons on him if he's got no natural aptitude,'" Caplan told UPI.

"Just as there's an educational testing juggernaut, there could easily be a brain testing juggernaut tomorrow." Rules should be established about what can and can't be done with children, he said.

"Worried parents -- the worried well -- are going to be falling all over themselves to get this stuff done with their kids. This is the gift to neurotic parents everywhere, especially wealthy neurotic parents. Why waste your time getting your kid ready for that fancy Manhattan nursery school if he's not going to get into Princeton anyway?

"Can (brain) tests really predict all that? Probably not. But you can become very reductionistic about it and think that your fate is your brain. In some ways, of course, it is. But that doesn't mean you can't change things with learning and environment. Yes, it is predictive, but we don't want to sell it as 100 percent deterministic.

"So doctors and psychologists will have important questions about when they will test, why they will test, and how they will counsel."

Caplan was asked if he could envision a coffe-table book that showed the brain patterns of future Tolstoys, Mozarts, and Einsteins. Parents would try to match up little Johnny to see where he fits.

"Bet on it," Caplan said.

From here.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

USA: Absence of Stem Cell Donors Consent

After President Obama reversed his predecessor's stand on embryo research in 2009 shortly after his inauguration, the battles seemed over. The main ethical consideration was ensuring that the donors of embryos and gametes gave their informed consent to research.

However, a review of human embryonic stem cell lines in the US has raised concerns about informed consent amongst gamete donors. Some of the stem cell lines, though approved by the National Institutes of Health, may have involved gametes from donors who had not consented. The review, conducted by academics from Rockfeller University and The Hastings Center, a bioethics think tank, identified 30 lines of approved stem cells with unknown provenance. These cells may very well have come from non-consenting gamete donors. In addition to this, the providers of 19 lines did not respond to requests for consent information.

The authors of the review criticised American IVF clinics, from which many of the embryos were sourced, for failing to obtain consent from gamete donors: "just 30% of oocyte donor consent forms in surveyed US IVF clinics mention the possibility that resultant embryos might be donated to research, and only 8% mention donation to hESC research specifically" the authors of the review stated in a letter to Cell Stem Cell.

They also stressed that "information about the provenance of the hESC lines should be public and readily available", particularly for the hESC research community. They conclude:

"With such rapid advances occurring in stem cell research, it is critical that consent forms for donation of gametes to IVF refer not just to the possibility of future research use, but also to derivation of hESCs specifically. Also, information about the provenance of the hESC lines should be public and readily available. The hESC research community will be best served if their essential research materials--gametes and embryos --are donated by individuals who knowingly and willingly agree to the use of those materials in hESC research."

Related reading:  Absence of Gamete Donor ConsentSome Stem Cell Lines Off Limits; Whistleblower Exposes Soo Kyung's Stem cell ResearchMouse Stem Cells for Retina Repair

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Why Did Pope Benedict Resign?

Kevin Kallsen and George Conger discuss Pope Benedict's resignation, bantering about the fallout from the press and his decade of achievements. A must watch!

Kevin and George also discuss Justin Welby's first week at Lambeth Palace and bring you insider perspectives and remark on the Archbishop's first three achievements.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Lebanon: Muslim Fertility Slump

As the only Arab country where a substantial proportion of the population is Christian, Lebanon’s geo-political importance is out of proportion to its size – four million people in a country the size of Jamaica. It has a vital role to play in struggles between the West and the Muslim world and in dialogue between Christianity and Islam.

But a poll taken in January shows that two-thirds of Lebanese Christians feel that the very existence of their communities is under long-term threat in their country. They say that too many of their fellow Christians are emigrating, their share of the population is shrinking and their political leaders are consumed with factional infighting.

This is a glum picture – but it may be false, according to a bombshell report on Lebanese demography just released in English – and reported exclusively in MercatorNet. It has been extensively reported in the Lebanese media.

The report was produced for the Lebanese Information Centre (LIC), a Beirut think tank, and the figures were checked by Statistics Lebanon, one of the country’s most prominent polling and research firms.

According to this study, the clichés are wrong. The proportion of Christians in the country – which currently stands at about 34 percent -- is slowly increasing. By 2030, it will rise to 37 percent and by 2045 to more than 39 percent. And because hundreds of thousands of overseas Lebanese are eligible to vote, the increase in registered voters is even more impressive. By 2030, 40 percent of Lebanese on the electoral roll will be Christian, and by 2045, the figure will be 41 percent.

In the knife-edge politicking of Lebanon, this figure has momentous consequences, says Dr Wissam Raji, of the LIC, the lead author of the report. “Ever since the Syrian army left Lebanon in 2005,” he says, “the Christians have been gaining momentum. According to our constitution, Christians have 50 percent of the political power of the country. These figures eliminate the possibility of evenly dividing the political power into three as suggested for the last 10 years by the majority of the Shiites who want equal shares between themselves and the Sunnis and the Christians.”

The topic of population statistics in Lebanon is always potentially inflammatory. For more than 50 years, the government has refused to publish statistics about the size of religious groups. Lebanon is the only member of the United Nations which has not conducted a census since the end of World War II. In fact, while the United States takes a constitutionally-mandated census every ten years, Lebanon’s one and only census took place in 1932 when France was the ruling colonial power.

According to figures gathered at the time, Maronite Christians made up about 29 percent of the population, Sunni Muslims about 22 per cent and Shiite Muslims about 20 percent. A decade later, in 1943, Lebanon became independent. The population then was officially estimated to be about 30 percent Maronite, 21 percent Sunni and 19 percent Shiite.

The Maronites, Sunnis and Shiites are just the largest and most powerful of the 18 religious denominations recognised by Lebanon’s constitution. The Greek Orthodox are currently estimated to be about 8 percent, the Melkite Catholics about 5 percent and the Druze, a Muslim sect, about 5 percent.

However, political power in the government was parcelled out in the 1943 constitution among the three largest groups in proportion to the size of their population in the 1932 census. The president was always to be a Maronite, as it was the largest single denomination. The prime minister was a Sunni, and the speaker of the House a Shiite. Because Christians had constituted 54 percent of the population in the 1932 census, parliamentary seats and jobs in the public service were allocated on a 6:5 ratio.

But the Christian birth rate began to fall and Christian emigration began to rise. A civil war raged from 1975 to 1990. For everyone it brought misery, chaos and death, and between 600,000 and 900,000 Lebanese fled the country. From 1975 to 1984, 80 percent of those leaving were Christians. But as the resistance of the Christian militias stiffened and Muslim factions began fighting amongst themselves, the proportion was reversed. Between 1985 and 1990, 83 percent of the emigrants were Muslim.

In 1990 a peace accord was signed which brought an uneasy peace. Everyone knew that a new government ought to reflect the new political and demographic realities, but there were no figures to back up the sensation that the Christian presence was diminishing. So the warring factions agreed that the proportion of deputies in the parliament and public servants should be adjusted from a 6:5 ratio of Christians to Muslims to 1:1. And that is where it stands today.

However, demography never sleeps. And quietly the proportion of Christians began to rise again. The first reason was unequal shares of emigrants. According to the Lebanese Information Centre, about 60 percent of the 700,000 people who have left the country after 1992 were Muslim. And then Muslim birth rates began to fall. Fast.

Although the Western media keeps ringing alarm bells about high Arab birth rates, the reality is quite different. Youssef Courbage, a distinguished Lebanese demographer who works in France and Norway, says, “Of the three major monotheistic religions, all of which encourage fertility, Islam is the one that encourages procreation the least.”

In Lebanon the Muslim fertility rate was 5.44 children per woman in 1971, compared to the much lower Christian birth rate of 3.56. But by 2004, the Lebanese Information Centre estimates that it had dropped to 1.82, compared to the Christian fertility rate of 1.53.

Why are birth rates so low in a society where most people’s identity is built around their religion?

The response of the Lebanese Information Centre can be summed up in three words: instability, education and secularisation. The war caused a slump in fertility. And as more opportunities opened up for girls, they married later and had fewer children. The growing secularisation of Lebanese society meant that both Christians and Muslims were paying less attention to the exhortations of religious leaders to have big families.

“Huge numbers of our men emigrate,” Dr Raji told MercatorNet, “and the emigration of families is much lower than individual emigration. So over the last 30 years this has led to a huge number of single women in our society. With political stability I believe that our fertility rate will definitely increase in the coming years due to lower intensity of emigration.”

The upshot of all these trends is that a 40-year decline in the Christian population has been reversed. Unless another war breaks out, it is unlikely that Lebanon will lose its identity as the only place in the Arab world where Christians and Muslims share political power.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.


Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Quote of the Week - Fr. Robert Hart

"You cannot be more 'Catholic' than to be faithful to the Scriptures, the Fathers of the Church, and every Ordinal used by the Church in the Patristic period. You can, however, be more Roman and more Medieval." -- Father Robert Hart (From here.)

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Antarctic Ozone Hole Smaller

The hole in the ozone layer above Antarctica was the smallest for a decade in 2012, satellite data reveals.

Read about it here and watch the animation. Note that the article admits in the last paragraph that climate is a factor.

This emphasis on reduced emission is a hoax. Little progress has been made in reducing emissions.  In fact, as the chart below shows, carbon dioxide emissions are at the same level today as they were in 1992.

Greenhouse gas emissions were higher in 2010 than in 1990, as shown in the chart below.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Boko Haram Murders 9 Polio Workers

At least nine women who were vaccinating children against polio have been shot dead in northern Nigeria by gunmen suspected of belonging to a radical Islamist sect.

The killings drew comparisons with a series of incidents in Pakistan last December where five female polio vaccinators were gunned down, apparently by Islamist militants. It also signalled a fresh wave of hostility towards immunisation drives in Nigeria, where some clerics have claimed the vaccines are part of a western plot to sterilise young girls and eliminate the Muslim population.

The attacks took place in Kano, the biggest city in Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north, where families generally feel more comfortable allowing women inside their homes than men.

On Friday morning gunmen arrived by motor tricycle and opened fire in the Hotoro Hayi neighbourhood, killing at least eight female vaccinators, witnesses told Associated Press. Four people were killed in a second attack, in the Unguwa Uku neighbourhood, according to witnesses.

Read it all here.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

N. Korean Doctors Murdered by Boko Haram

Assailants in north-eastern Nigeria have killed three North Korean doctors, beheading one of the physicians, in the latest attack on health workers in a nation under assault by a radical Islamic sect, officials said on Sunday.

The deaths on Saturday night of the doctors in Potiskum, a town in Yobe state, comes after gunmen killed at least nine women administering polio vaccines in Kano, the major city of Nigeria's predominantly Muslim north.

The two attacks raise questions over whether an extremist, sect Boko Haram, has picked a new soft target in its guerrilla campaign of shootings and bombings across the country. The sect has carried out a number of attacks in Yobe in the past 18 months.

The attackers apparently attacked the North Korean doctors inside their home, said Dr Mohammed Mamman, chairman of the hospital managing board of Yobe state. The doctors had no security guards at their residence and typically travelled around via three-wheel taxis without a police escort, officials said.

By the time soldiers arrived at the house, they found the doctors' wives cowering in a flowerbed outside their home. At the property, they found the corpses of the men, all bearing what appeared to be machete wounds.

Read it all here.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Government Tries to Block Homeschooling Refugees

Joseph Knippenberg

Yesterday, a couple of headlines caught my eye. “Homeschooling Not a Fundamental Right, Justice Dept. Argues.” That one came from evangelical commentator Napp Nazworth. “Homeschooling Not a Fundamental Right Says Justice Department” was our old friend Joe Carter’s riff on the same theme. Both articles were inspired by a piece written by the Home School Legal Defense Association’s Michael Farris, in which he responded to the Justice Department’s brief in a case HSLDA is litigating on behalf of a German family that is seeking asylum in the United States. (All the relevant briefs can be downloaded here.)

The case involves the Romeike family, which has run afoul of Germany’s compulsory schooling laws. Alone in Western Europe, Germany offers no conscientious exemption from attending state or state-supervised schools. Homeschoolers are treated like truants–indeed, arguably worse than mere truants–with parents subjected to mounting fines, jailtime, and forcible removal of the children from the family home. Most German families that seek to homeschool their children leave the country. (Indeed, there was one such family involved in our homeschool group.)

Read it all here.

Friday, February 15, 2013

A Good Pope

Michael Cook

After a week in Rome last November I flew into London. It was late in the evening and the closely-cropped immigration officer had probably been dreaming about abusing a referee in tomorrow’s soccer match. He looked me up and down and said, “so what have you been doing in Rome, eh?” I hadn’t been expecting this Stasi-like interrogation and I responded a bit defiantly, “Seeing the Pope”.

“The Pope, eh?” said the officer. “And did he have anything to say for himself?”

Three months later, that is the question that everyone is asking. Benedict XVI has announced that he is abdicating, the first pope in 600 years to do so. Does he have anything to say for himself?

For many journalists the answer was no. Greg Sheridan, of The Australian, wrote, “Benedict XVI is a good man but a poor Pope.”

But how do you measure the success of a Pope, the spiritual leader of a billion-plus Catholics, and a benchmark for Christian teaching for millions of others? Twitter followers? B16 only has 1,536,000 and Paris Hilton has 9,751,000. Is she a better communicator, a more influential thinker, a more inspiring example?

The core business of Catholicism is evangelisation, helping people to fall in love with God. As @Pontifex said in one of his last tweets, “Every human being is loved by God the Father. No one need feel forgotten, for every name is written in the Lord's loving Heart.”

The monsignori whispering their petty complaints to journalists in the colonnade, the thieving butler, the red ink in the Vatican book – none of these matter much for a Pope. Or rather, they only matter as obstacles to his mission. The journalists who focus on process are missing the real story.

And by that standard, history will probably account Benedict XVI a success. When I visited St Peter’s Square that Sunday in November, tens of thousands of people were there to see him speak at noon from his balcony window – Italians, Americans, Russians, Koreans, Spaniards, Chinese. Most of them were youngish; many were obviously honeymoon couples.

This morning I was on a train to work when a lawyer friend hailed me and sat beside me. “Did you hear the news?” he asked. We chatted about the resignation. “You know,” he said. “He’s in Rome, but he was very influential in my entering the Catholic Church last year. He is so gentle and prayerful and his writings are so piercingly intelligent. It’s amazing that he had such influence on me from so far away.”

As the years pass, Benedict XVI’s legacy will become clearer. But I would highlight six key contributions.

Benedict as a defender of Christian culture. As an analyst of Western culture, he has no peer. The 21st century is experiencing a radical rupture with its Christian past as a process of secularization which began with the French Revolution. Benedict has used his bully pulpit to warn politicians and intellectuals that expelling God from public life will have disastrous consequences.

He has made a number of stunning speeches in Paris in 2008, in London in 2010, and in Berlin in 2011 about the consequences of deChristianisation. He told French intellectuals: “A purely positivistic culture which tried to drive the question concerning God into the subjective realm, as being unscientific, would be the capitulation of reason, the renunciation of its highest possibilities, and hence a disaster for humanity.”

Benedict as a defender of reason. In an often-quoted speech just before he was elected, he said, “We are building a dictatorship of relativism that does not recognize anything as definitive and whose ultimate goal consists solely of one's own ego and desires.” Paradoxically, modern culture has less and less respect for reason as it distances itself from truth. Time and time again, Benedict pointed out that the world around is only intelligible if it comes from the hands of a Creator. And without truth, politics becomes a game of thrones and science loses prestige.

Benedict as a defender of tradition. In the Catholic world, “tradition” is not crusty conservatism, but faithfully passing on, from one generation to the next, the teachings of its founder in all their original integrity. One of Benedict’s strong points has been a tremendous sensitivity to the centuries of tradition in the Church. Every Wednesday for years he gave talks on contributions made by saints from the early years of Christianity. Unlike many radical theologians, he refused to interpret Vatican II as a radical break with the past. Instead, he insisted that nothing good from the past was truly outmoded. He called this the “hermeneutic of continuity”, as opposed to the “hermeneutic of rupture and reform”.

Benedict as an evangeliser. Media critiques have focused on empty pews and empty seminaries in Europe. This is the result of corrosive secularization stretching back many, many decades, long before his election, or even before the Vatican Council. But like John Paul II, Benedict sees a new springtime for Christianity beneath the snows of a secularized culture. He created a new section in the Vatican which is dedicated to the new evangelization. The clarity of his message and his encouragement have given new optimism to Christians all over the world.

Benedict as the West’s link with Islam. The media are recycling the myth that Benedict poisoned relations with Islam. This is superficial and wrong-headed. If anything, his call for a united front against secularization has attracted Muslims. Admittedly, his Regensburg address in 2006 caused great consternation, but he put his finger on the difference between Islam and Christianity: that the God of Islam is pure will, above and beyond reason, and that the God of Christianity is creative reason, ordering and guiding the world.

But he delivered the same message – in slightly different words – in a mosque in Jordan in 2009, to great applause. The West’s engagement with the Islamic world will be one of the great challenges of the 21st century; Benedict has created a framework for understanding our differences. Both the Pope and President Obamahave reached out to the Muslim world. But if you were a Muslim, whom would you respect more? A pious priest who worships the Almighty, or a president who showers bombs on Afghan weddings and confetti on gay marriages?

Benedict as a reformer. The Pope has been bitterly criticized for sexual abuse within the Church. Time will show that this is absurd. Shortly before his election, he bitterly lamented “How much filth there is in the Church, even among those who, in the priesthood, should belong entirely to Him.” He was aware of how much had to be done and as Pope he was unsparing in his treatment of proven abusers. He wrote a severe letter to the people of Ireland to castigate their bishops and demand reform and penance.

* * * * *

"A poor Pope"? I’d say, a poor analyst. As Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger burned with the pure gem-like flame of transcendent intellectual clarity which puts his critics to shame. Critiics like the teeth-gnashing pope of atheism, Richard Dawkins. He tweeted, “I feel sorry for the Pope and all old Catholic priests. Imagine having a wasted life to look back on and no sex.”

The best response to such tripe is to quote the first Pope: “To silence, by honest living, the ignorant chatter of fools; that is what God expects of you.” By that standard Benedict XVI has been all that Catholics expected of him, and more.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Colorado: the Question of Personhood

Jeremy and Lori Stodghill at their wedding in 2001
On the morning of the day she died, 31-year-old Lori Stodghill balanced her breakfast plate on her very pregnant belly and watched it bob up and down as the twin boys inside her kicked and kicked. The saucer-sized dish was "bouncing back and forth," her husband, Jeremy Stodghill, remembers — a sure sign that at 28 weeks, the babies were alive and well.

The politics of "personhood" has been a big issue in Colorado in recent years. In 2008 and again in 2010 pro-life groups fought for an amendment to the state constitution which would have defined a person as "every human being from the beginning of the biological development of that human being." The controversial initiative attracted nationwide publicity but failed both times. Last year supporters tried again but failed to get enough signatures for the November ballot.

That's one reason why Coloradans on both sides of the debate were surprised that lawyers for a Catholic hospital were arguing that a fetus has no rights in a malpractice case.

The circumstances were tragic. In 2006, 31-year-old Lori Stodghill, who was seven months pregnant with twin sons, died of a pulmonary embolism at St Thomas More Hospital & Medical Center in Canon City. The hospital is owned by a group which operates hospitals in 17 states, Catholic Health Initiatives.

Jeremy Stodghill sued CHI, the hospital and two doctors, alleging that the doctors failed to perform an emergency Caesarean to save the twins, who also died. CHI's lawyers countered that under Colorado's Wrongful Death Act, fetuses do not have legal status.

William Kuntz, St. Vincent's trial attorney, defended the hospital's stance at the time.

"We've never contended that a fetus is not a person," Kuntz told the Orlando Sentinel in 1996. "We've always said that an unborn person does not have the right to bring a lawsuit in Florida."

This is clearly at odds with Catholic bioethics. The Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Servicesaffirms the sanctity of life 'from the moment of conception until death'".

When Colorado's Catholic bishops found out about the case, they protested vigorously, even though they were not managers of CHI. Now CHI and the hospital have accepted that they erred. "Although the argument was legally correct, recourse to an unjust law was morally wrong," CHI said in a statement.

After losing the initial case and an appeal, Mr Stodghill is trying to appeal to the State Supreme Court. If he succeeds, CHI's lawyers will not cite the Wrongful Death Act. Instead their argument will dispute allegations of negligence.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Syrian Rebels Control Largest Dam

Syrian activists say rebels fighting against the regime in Damascus have taken control of the country's largest dam on the Euphrates River in the province of Raqa.

The London-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said on February 11 that the rebels are now guarding the dam's two entrances.

Syrian activists said the insurgents seized the entrances after taking control of the nearby town of Al-Thawra.

The watchdog described the development as the "biggest economic loss for the regime since the start of the revolution."

The Euphrates Dam can generate up to 880 megawatts of electricity. The reservoir behind the dam, Lake Assad, has more than 14 billion cubic meters of water.

The lake was named after Hafez al-Assad, the father and predecessor of the current president, Bashar al-Assad.

Deadly Car Explosion At Turkish Border

Elsewhere in Syria, a car has exploded at a frontier crossing on the Turkish border.

Turkish media reports said at least five people were killed and many more were injured in the blast near the Turkish town of Reyhanli on February 11.

The reports said the explosion was caused by a car bomb.

The mayor of Reyhanli told CNN Turk TV network that four of those killed were Turkish nationals and that the car which exploded had Syrian license plates.

More than a dozen other vehicles were damaged by the blast.

The border area has been the scene of often fierce fighting between Syrian government forces and rebels trying to topple President Bashar al-Assad's regime during the country's nearly two-year-old conflict.

Turkey is a strong supporter of the rebels and harbors thousands of Syrian refugees



Saturday, February 9, 2013

French Capture Key Mali Airport

French forces battling Islamist militants in northern Mali have taken a strategic airport near the Algerian border.

The French defense ministry said Friday that special forces have seized the airport at Tessalit, a small town in Mali's Kidal region, and are moving to secure the town itself with the help of Chadian troops.

The airport would give French-led forces another base in their fight against the militants, who have fled into the Sahara after losing control of northern Mali's major cities.

​​Fighting continued elsewhere in Mali Friday. Outside the city of Gao, a suicide bomber driving a motorcycle blew himself up near a military checkpoint. One soldier was wounded in the blast.

A local journalist, Soumalia Maiga, ran to the scene as soon as he heard the explosion.

He says the explosion happened less than 10 meters from the checkpoint. He says people in the town are afraid to go to the market and some are even afraid to go to the mosque for Friday prayers. He says it is impossible to know whether the bomber was trying to hit the checkpoint or was trying to get inside the town.

The French news agency, AFP, reports that the Islamist group MUJAO claimed responsibility for the attack.

​​​In Mali's capital, Bamako, army soldiers opened fire on an elite paratroopers' camp. A military source tells VOA that one paratrooper was killed and at least six other people wounded.

The paratroopers, known as the Red Berets, were loyal to ousted president Amadou Toumani Toure and had refused assignments to go to the north as part of regular army units.

​​France wants to begin handing over its four-week-old military operation to the Malian army and African forces. But officials say any transfer will have to wait until Mali's security situation stabilizes.

France has proposed the United Nations establish a peacekeeping mission in Mali. Diplomats have said privately that a U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing the mission is not likely before the end of February. It could take another two months after that to transition the African forces into U.N. peacekeepers.

The Mali crisis began in early 2012 when the Tuareg separatist group MNLA launched a rebellion in the north. The MNLA and Islamist militants seized control of the north after the March coup in Bamako, but the MNLA was soon swept aside as the militants imposed harsh Islamic law on the region.

At the request of Mali's government, French forces entered the country last month to drive back the al-Qaida-linked militants who had begun moving in the direction of the capital, Bamako.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Israel's Abuse of Ethiopian Women

Years of rumours that Ethiopian women were pressured into having contraceptive injections by Israeli officials have finally been confirmed. The Health Ministry has ordered immigration officials in Ethiopia and health workers in Israel to stop coercing or coaxing women into accepting the long-lasting injectable contraceptive Depo-Provera.

The directive instructed doctors "not to renew prescriptions of Depo Provera to women of Ethiopian origin or any other women who, for whatever reason, may not understand the treatment's implications." They should also ask patients why they want to take the shot, using a translator if necessary. The Ministry did not confirm or acknowledge any wrongdoing.

Ethiopians who claim to be Jews are welcome to migrate to Israel under the Law of Return, but they face discrimination and have not always integrated well into Israeli society. Births among Ethiopian women have dropped by 50% in the last decade, according to a report by the "Vacuum" investigative news program on Israeli Educational Television. "This story reeks of racism, paternalism and arrogance. It's a story to be ashamed of," journalist Gal Gabai concluded.

Ethiopian women told the journalists stories of unsubtle coercion and misinformation. "They said, 'Come, there are vaccinations, gather everyone," one of them said. "We said we wouldn't receive it. They said, 'You won't move to Israel.'" Women said that they were told that it would be hard for them to work or find accommodation of they had large families.

This is not a new problem, but the government is finally facing up to the lack of informed consent on the part of a marginalised, poorly-educated minority. In 2008, Hedva Eyal, of the feminist group Isha L'Isha, wrote a report alleging that the medical profession had failed Ethiopian migrant women.

"The paternalistic attitude towards women of Ethiopian origin and the state's concern over high rates of birth among poor and black populations drove Israeli official bodies, such as The Jewish Agency and the medical establishment, to act, allegedly for the benefit of women's health, but in fact according to the concepts and wishes of the establishment regarding the desirable way to conduct family life. As a result, and as this paper shows, women did not get crucial medical information and their right of choice regarding their bodies, families and lives was severely curtailed."

From here.

Israel did offer an apology for the abuse of these women.

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Quote of the Week - Eleanor Roosevelt

“Great minds discuss ideas. Average minds discuss events. Small minds discuss people.” -- Eleanor Roosevelt

Monday, February 4, 2013

Malala Recovering from Surgery

LONDON, Feb 3: Malala Yousufzai is in stable condition after undergoing two successful operations to reconstruct her skull and restore her hearing, the British hospital treating her said on Sunday.

Birmingham’s Queen Elizabeth Hospital said doctors for 15-year-old Malala were “very pleased” with her progress after five hours of skull reconstruction and ear surgery on Saturday.

“She is awake and talking to staff and members of her family,” the hospital said in a statement, adding that she would continue to recover in the hospital until she was well enough to be discharged.
The operations lasted five hours. The procedures carried out were cranial reconstruction, aimed at mending parts of her skull with a titanium plate, and a cochlear implant designed to restore hearing on her left side, which was damaged in the gun attack on her.

“Both operations were a success and Malala is now recovering in hospital,” said the hospital statement.

The teenager drew the world’s attention when she was shot by Taliban in October on her way home on a school bus in Swat valley.

The Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan said one of its members targeted her because she promoted girls’ education and ‘western thinking’.

Malala was airlifted to Britain to receive specialised medical care and protection against further Taliban threats. She is expected to remain in the UK for some time after her father, Ziauddin, was given a diplomatic post based in Birmingham.

So far, doctors say she has made very good progress. She was able to stand up, write and return home, and doctors said they had seen minimum signs of brain damage.


Saturday, February 2, 2013

Queen Beatrix Abdicates the Throne

This week, however, Queen Beatrix of The Netherlands made world headlines by announcing that she is stepping down from the throne and handing it to her eldest son, Prince Willem-Alexander. In a word, she is abdicating, although that has the ring of something done under duress, as in the case of Richard II of England or Mary Queen of Scots, when, in fact, Queen Beatrix is taking an entirely voluntary step.

“I do not step down because the office is too heavy, but with the conviction that responsibility should now lie in the hands of a new generation. I am grateful for the many years that I have been allowed to be your queen,” she said on Monday. “Allowed” is graceful.

The move has brought her considerable respect, even among republicans, of which The Netherlands has it quota of 20 percent or so, like most other monarchies. The 32 years Beatrix has reigned may not seem over-long compared to the 60 years Queen Elizabeth has clocked up (as many are pointedly remarking right now), and she is only 75 compared to Elizabeth’s 86, but it is long enough when the heir-apparent is already 45. There is dignity and humility about retiring while the going is good, thus allowing Prince Willem to assume the responsibility for which he seems well prepared. Nobody is indispensable but it takes a person of character to recognise the right moment to bow out.

Of course, she had great role models in her mother, Queen Juliana, and grandmother, Queen Wilhelmina, who resigned after 32 years and 50 years respectively. In other ways she is her own woman. The famously down-to-earth Juliana, who got around on a bicycle and sent her children to state schools, was so much aware of being an ordinary woman that she said as she acceded to the throne in 1948, “Who am I that I may do this?” Her daughter, on the other hand, is regarded as more distant, although competent (she graduated in law from Leiden University) and having a lot of personal authority.

But Beatrix is also an ordinary woman from whom we can learn some life lessons, according to various sources, including MercatorNet contacts in Holland.

Married to Claus von Amsberg (Prince Claus) she became the mother of three sons, all today in apparently stable marriages with young children (mostly girls, including the next heir apparent) and well regarded by the public.

Her family life has had some severe trials. Prince Claus developed Parkinson’s disease in the early 1990s and suffered from depression requiring psychiatric treatment as well as cancer before his death in 2002. Beatrix remained united with him and caring throughout. Her compassion for anyone who suffered was evident.

Early last year came another sorrow when her second son, Prince Friso was seriously injured in a skiing accident. Buried under an avalanche for 20 minutes he sustained serious brain damage and survives in a coma in a hospital in London, where the family had made their home. Queen Beatrix has coped with this tragic development in an exemplary way -- although there has been speculation in the European media that his accident is the reason for her departure from the throne. Germany’s biggest newspaper, Bild, asked: “Has her son’s ski accident broken her heart?”

Somehow that question seems to underestimate both the mother and the queen.

Beatrix has been at the centre of some major controversies in her lifetime. Her marriage to Claus von Amsburg (probably not entirely her own idea) provoked a huge protest when it became known that the German aristocrat had been in the Hitler Youth. (Actually, it was well nigh impossible to escape membership of the Nazi organisation, as Pope Benedict himself can testify.) Claus was later cleared of having deeper links with the Third Reich and went on to become very popular in his own right.

Her coronation in 1980 saw some of the worst street violence ever witnessed in Amsterdam as squatters clashed with police in the streets, angry over the sums being spent on the ceremony when the capital was suffering from an acute housing shortage. Then in 2009, the Royal Family were the target of an apparent attempt on their lives when a man tried to crash a car into their open-topped bus during a parade. He succeeded in killing seven bystanders -- a source of anguish to the Queen, no doubt.

Prince Willem’s marriage to Argentinian Máxima Zorreguieta raised another furor because her father had served in the military junta. Her being a Catholic also did not go down well in Calvinist Holland, but the Queen consulted with the then Prime Minister Wim Kok and his government supported the wedding. (Whether the very popular Maxima will wear the title “Queen” on her husband’s accession has also to be decided by parliament.)

Controversy is one thing, but scandal is another, and the House of Orange has been remarkably free of that during the past three decades. The only serious candidate for that label involves Prince Friso’s marriage to human rights activist Mabel Wisse Smit in 2003. It transpired that she had had an association with a (by then) dead drug gangster, Klaas Bruinsma, and because the couple withheld information about the extent of her dealings with the man, Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende refused to seek Parliament’s permission for the marriage. Priso Friso therefore renounced his right of succession to the throne and the wedding went ahead.

Beatrix, by now a widow, no doubt found the publicity very painful, although it pales to insignificance beside what Queen Elizabeth has had to put up with. The two women have something in common, however. With the luck of their generation they grew up in cultures which were still overtly Christian and they have, to all appearances, kept the faith. Like Elizabeth, Beatrix always uses her Christmas speeches (and perhaps others) to acknowledge this faith. That could well be the secret of that quiet dignity that has won the admiration, or at least respect, of Dutch citizens across the political spectrum.

Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet.