Saturday, January 2, 2010

Who Pays Wesley J. Smith?

Well, well. You've heard me gripe about the smooth but fact-less exaggerations made by Wesley J. Smith regarding end of life care and aid in dying. His blog at FirstThings is one screed after another of religious ideology - and the far right kind - that has no time for science or fact. But he's got articles galore and a gazillion nasty books - in short, the man has influence.
His "theory" of "human exceptionalism" skirts God talk. He's a connected, articulate lawyer who dabbles in bioethics; his opponents in the field have accused him of playing loose with the facts in order to reach his preferred conclusions.

Here's a little bit, from the book I'm reading, about the Discovery Institute, for which Smith is a Senior Fellow.

In the evolution wars, the campaign on behalf of intelligent design deserves special mention because it achieved success in many communities by brilliantly employing an intellectual and scientific vocabulary to attack "elitist" scientists who reject religious attacks on Darwin's theory. The intelligent design movement is spearheaded by the Discovery Institute, a think tank based in Seattle and bankrolled by far right conservatives. The slick, media-savvy right-wingers who run the Discovery Institute prefer to downplay religion and highlight the anti-Darwinist views of a handful of scientific contrarians, many with ties to the religious right. That their views are almost universally rejected by respected mainstream scientists is seen by the intelligent design crowd as evidence of a liberal establishment conspiracy to protect its Darwinist turf. Institute spokesmen constantly compare their contrarian faith-based researchers with once scorned geniuses like Copernicus and Galileo - a contention conveniently ignoring the fact that the Catholic Church, not other seekers of scientific truth, was the source of opposition to the heliocentric theory of the solar system. Intelligent design does not insist on the seven days of creation but it does rest on the nonscientific hypothesis that the complexity of life proves the existence of a designer.

Susan Jacoby, The Age of American Unreason, pp 27

He may talk a good one but he is of a brand that will deny facts and statistics, endorse quack scientists, get funding from religious backers, and denigrate the diminishing American intellect for the sake of adherence to unprovable faith. He's no scientist; he's a marketing shill for the religious right.

If I had to pinpoint one of the greatest crises in this country, it would be the lack of sound scientific education and thought. The Discovery Institute is treasonous in this sense, diminishing our excellence in education and our future strength as a world leader by misdirecting us down a path of anti-intellectualism and anti-science. Smith is only one of their well-paid voices.

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Sorry, You're Only Allowed To Be Gay.

Queerty looks at reorientation therapy, the American Psychiatry Association, and discrimination:

"Not everyone who is gay is happy about being gay, and some gays feel deeply conflicted about it," Schoenewolf writes. "Such gays often go into psychotherapy in order to talk about this issue and work through the conflicts that prevent them from being straight. This is nothing new."

He's right. This is nothing new! Enter the new part: "What is new is that in recent years the gay rights movement has taken offense at this form of psychotherapy. They gay rights movement is demanding that sexual reorientation therapy be banned and that psychotherapists be prevented from assisting gays or bisexuals who want to be straight. They have even pressured the American Psychological Association to pass new ethical rules regarding this issue."

Alas, there is no way to "ban" a certain type of treatment. All the lobbying in the world can never get Congress to pass a law that forbids this therapy, nor does getting the APA to come out against it mean all the world's psychologists will adhere to the rules. But at least he understands why gay groups are so critical of the therapy: "The movement claims that helping a homosexual to become heterosexual is giving into societal bias. It says if someone is gay, a psychotherapist should help him to accept his homosexuality. They even claim that sexual reorientation therapy is a form of brainwashing that may do harm to the patient. (I have occasionally done reorientation therapy and never brainwashed anybody; actually it is the gay rights movement, in my opinion, that is doing the brainwashing.)"

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What's the Matter With Kansas?

The AP flubs this entire story about Kansas state legislature planning to address, once again, late-term abortion laws there. Despite all the space given to this story, there's zero conversation about why women seek late-term abortions. While the writer, AP's John Hanna, does the usual represent-both-(manufactured)-sides-of-the-argument, he fails to get at the heart of the matter.

Abortion is a legal service, medically and scientifically proven safe, the third most common procedure in the US, sought by women in dire matters because they don't have proper contraception to prevent pregnancy (no one flippantly uses abortion as birth control) or in chance of losing their life. He quotes outrageous terms like "abortionist" instead of doctor. And where are the women in this story? Nowhere.

That abortion is the taking of a person's life is a religious concept. Kansas' continual discrimination against women and women's rights would be farce if it didn't cause so much damage to so many women. 57% of women in Kansas live in countries where abortion is unavailable; the state requires a waiting period before the service is performed, Medicaid does not cover the service; about 25% of women in Kansas have not had a doctor visit in the last year because they can't afford it. If women can't get contraception and can't get abortions, a state is forcing them to have children. Under the equal protection clause that is unconstitutional. It amounts to wealthy women having the freedom to choose how and when they reproduce and poor or minority women having no choice at all.

Hanna's inability to address the science or the facts surrounding abortion, Kansas' history with discrimination, the imposition of religious doctrine on a segment of society, or the fight in that state to further defund Planned Parenthood rendering a legal, medical service inaccessible is unconscionable from a national news source.

Abortion is a complicated issue that should be addressed as such. In a mature, fact-based manner. Simple continuation of the illogical "divide" regarding a private medical procedure is not informative reporting, nor is it representative of the issue and procedure. It is shameful.

Anti-abortion legislators in Kansas are pushing again this year to rewrite state restrictions on late-term procedures and for other initiatives, despite the murder of Dr. George Tiller.

Tiller was the face of the abortion debate in Kansas -- and sometimes nationally -- because his Wichita clinic was among a few in the U.S. performing abortions in the last weeks of pregnancy. Tiller's clinic has been closed since he was shot to death in May and no doctor or clinic elsewhere in Kansas is doing the same work.

But legislators who oppose abortion still expect to pass a bill requiring doctors who perform late-term procedures to report more information to the state and making it possible for them to face lawsuits if patients or others come to believe their abortions violated state law. Abortion opponents contend such issues are still compelling, even if no doctor or clinic is performing abortions as late as Tiller did.

Such a bill passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. Kathleen Sebelius, an abortion rights Democrat, days before she was confirmed as U.S. health and human services secretary. Kansas House Judiciary Committee Chairman Lance Kinzer, an Olathe Republican, said he'll use that measure as a starting point for a debate this year.

Meanwhile, Sen. Tim Huelskamp, a Fowler Republican, said he'll revive his proposal to prevent $250,000 in federal funds from flowing through the state to Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri, which operates an abortion clinic in Overland Park. The money is for programs to prevent unwanted pregnancies, and Sebelius' successor, Gov. Mark Parkinson, another abortion rights Democrat, vetoed Huelskamp's proposal in May.

Some abortion rights supporters had hoped for a break from the Legislature's perennial debates over abortion because of lingering revulsion over Tiller's murder, including among many abortion opponents. Abortion rights backers also contend the state's ongoing budget problems should take precedence.

But Kinzer and other abortion opponents see postponing the debates as a mistake.

"The number of variables that can come into play 12 months from now as opposed to proceeding now are impossible to calculate," Kinzer said.

Peter Brownlie, president and chief executive officer of the Planned Parenthood chapter, said he's not surprised at abortion opponents' plans. He sees the annual legislative disputes mainly as an effort to help anti-abortion groups raise money.

"There's nobody in the state of Kansas who's doing abortions past 22 weeks of pregnancy. It's a moot issue, from a practical standpoint," he said. "For the Legislature to continue to spend significant amounts of its time on an issue that has no practical impact is waste of taxpayer money and legislative time."

Abortion opponents believe they have the same strong majorities in both legislative chambers for a bill rewriting late-term abortion restrictions and are close to the two-thirds majorities necessary to override a veto.

Parkinson spokeswoman Beth Martino declined to speculate on whether he would veto such legislation, but in an interview only days after becoming governor, Parkinson said his and Sebelius' views on abortion are "very similar."

"His views have not changed since last April, as far as I know," Martino acknowledged.

Martino said Parkinson would veto Huelskamp's proposal on Planned Parenthood's funding again if it came to the governor in the same form.

Bob Beatty, a Washburn University of Topeka political scientist, said abortion opponents might do better to wait until after Parkinson leaves office. He's not running for a full term this year, and U.S. Sen. Sam Brownback, an anti-abortion Republican, is a strong favorite to replace him.

Also, Beatty said, the debate over the state's budget problems will dominate the annual 90-day legislative session that begins Jan. 11.

Brownlie noted the trial of Scott Roeder, the man charged with killing Tiller, is scheduled to begin in Wichita the day the Legislature convenes. Beatty said it could cast a shadow over a legislative debate.

"In legislative sessions, it is a zero-sum game: There's only time and energy and political will for a certain number of issues," Beatty said.

For years, Tiller's clinic inspired abortion opponents to push for new restrictions on abortion, particularly after a fetus can survive outside the womb. By 1998, they'd succeeded in passing reporting requirements and restrictions on late-term procedures, but they've believed for years that the laws aren't adequately enforced.

Those enforcement issues still remain, said Mary Kay Culp, executive director of the anti-abortion group Kansans for Life. Several out-of-state doctors performed abortions at Tiller's clinic and one, Dr. Leroy Carhart, of Bellvue, Neb., considered opening a Kansas clinic after Tiller's death.

"The enforcement of the law remains nonexistent, which is inviting to late-term abortionists everywhere," Culp said.

Also, Planned Parenthood's funding is a big irritant for abortion opponents. Huelskamp rejects the argument that it's acceptable because it doesn't pay for abortions.

"It's one organization," he said. "It certainly subsidizes the abortion side."

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Christian Science Monitor on Baxter v. Montana

Link. One of the nicer things about this article is the observation that this legalization of aid in dying is part of a northwest trend:

In a move that is both ethically profound and (so far, at least) politically rare, Montana has become the third state to legalize physician-assisted suicide.

A divided state supreme court ruled Thursday that neither state law nor public policy prevented doctors from prescribing lethal drugs to terminally-ill patients who want to end their lives.

In essence, the court ruled, suicide is not a crime. The majority justices wrote:

“We find nothing in Montana Supreme Court precedent or Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy. The ‘against public policy’ exception to consent has been interpreted by this court as applicable to violent breaches of the public peace. Physician aid in dying does not satisfy that definition. We also find nothing in the plain language of Montana statutes indicating that physician aid in dying is against public policy. In physician aid in dying, the patient – not the physician – commits the final death-causing act by self-administering a lethal dose of medicine.”

Northwest pattern

The ruling – which is likely to be challenged in the legislature and perhaps in a voter referendum – follows a pattern in the Pacific Northwest.

In November 2008, voters in Washington State approved a ballot initiative allowing terminally ill, legally competent adults to obtain lethal prescriptions without exposing themselves or their doctors to criminal prosecution. The Washington measure was modeled on Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act enacted in 1997 following voter approval and upheld by the US Supreme Court in 2006.

The Oregon law strictly prohibits “lethal injection, mercy killing, or active euthanasia.” But it allows mentally competent adults who declare their intentions in writing, and have been diagnosed as terminally ill, to take a doctor-prescribed lethal drug themselves, orally, after a waiting period.

Since the law went into effect in 1998, about 40 people a year have taken their own life this way. Last year, 60 individuals did so (out of 88 who received the prescriptions).

No violations of Oregon law

Over the years, there have been no reported violations under the law – no evidence that individuals have been pressured by doctors or family members. And Oregon has become noted for the quality of end-of-life care, especially the use of hospices.

Missoula attorney Mark Connell, who represented plaintiff physicians and patients, described the decision as “a victory for individual rights over government control.”

“The Montana Supreme Court has now recognized that, where intensely personal and private choices regarding end-of-life care are involved, Montana law entrusts those decisions to the individuals whose lives are at stake, not the government,” he said in a statement released byCompassion & Choices, the main group lobbying in favor of physician-assisted suicide.

Pro-life groups took a different view.

Jeff Laszloffy of the Montana Family Foundation told, “Definitely not what we wanted, but not as bad as it could have been.”

“What the court did, in essence, was to place the issue back into the hands of the legislature, where it should be,” Mr. Laszloffy said. “They said there’s nothing currently in statute that prohibits the practice. It’s now up to us to go into the next legislative session fully armed and ready to pass statutory language that says, once and for all, that physician assisted suicide is illegal in Montana.”

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Just a Reminder of the Waste.

If you needed an image to show you how the US expenditure-to-life expectancy ratio is failing radically, look no further. You can find it at this link, from National Geographic and via @drgrist on twitter. So much for the best health care system in the world, huh?

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Tony Judt Writes for New York Review of Books.

From David Kurtz on twitter via stumble upon. Judt has ALS or Lou Gehrig's disease. This is apparently one of a series of articles.

This cockroach-like existence is cumulatively intolerable even though on any given night it is perfectly manageable. "Cockroach" is of course an allusion to Kafka's Metamorphosis, in which the protagonist wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into an insect. The point of the story is as much the responses and incomprehension of his family as it is the account of his own sensations, and it is hard to resist the thought that even the best-meaning and most generously thoughtful friend or relative cannot hope to understand the sense of isolation and imprisonment that this disease imposes upon its victims. Helplessness is humiliating even in a passing crisis—imagine or recall some occasion when you have fallen down or otherwise required physical assistance from strangers. Imagine the mind's response to the knowledge that the peculiarly humiliating helplessness of ALS is a life sentence (we speak blithely of death sentences in this connection, but actually the latter would be a relief).

Morning brings some respite, though it says something about the lonely journey through the night that the prospect of being transferred to a wheelchair for the rest of the day should raise one's spirits! Having something to do, in my case something purely cerebral and verbal, is a salutary diversion—if only in the almost literal sense of providing an occasion to communicate with the outside world and express in words, often angry words, the bottled-up irritations and frustrations of physical inanition.

The best way to survive the night would be to treat it like the day. If I could find people who had nothing better to do than talk to me all night about something sufficiently diverting to keep us both awake, I would search them out. But one is also and always aware in this disease of the necessarynormalcy of other people's lives: their need for exercise, entertainment, and sleep. And so my nights superficially resemble those of other people. I prepare for bed; I go to bed; I get up (or, rather, am got up). But the bit between is, like the disease itself, incommunicable.

I suppose I should be at least mildly satisfied to know that I have found within myself the sort of survival mechanism that most normal people only read about in accounts of natural disasters or isolation cells. And it is true that this disease has its enabling dimension: thanks to my inability to take notes or prepare them, my memory—already quite good—has improved considerably, with the help of techniques adapted from the "memory palace" so intriguingly depicted by Jonathan Spence. But the satisfactions of compensation are notoriously fleeting. There is no saving grace in being confined to an iron suit, cold and unforgiving. The pleasures of mental agility are much overstated, inevitably—as it now appears to me—by those not exclusively dependent upon them. Much the same can be said of well-meaning encouragements to find nonphysical compensations for physical inadequacy. That way lies futility. Loss is loss, and nothing is gained by calling it by a nicer name. My nights are intriguing; but I could do without them.

The End of "Beliefs" at NYT.

After 20 years of writing the Beliefs column for the New York Times, Peter Steinfels calls it quits.

It is partly to regain such freedom that, having left the regular staff of the paper in 1997, I have decided to bring Beliefs to a close. I look forward to being less limited to “900-word thoughts” and to being more personal, more direct and, when needs be, more political.

Ten years ago, Max Frankel, who had been executive editor of The Times when Beliefs began, gave up a column on the news media that he wrote for the Sunday Magazine. Mr. Frankel recalled in an interview that George Bernard Shaw had compared writing a column to “standing under a windmill, no sooner have you ducked one blade than the next one comes down.”

A column, Mr. Frankel said, “takes hold of your life” and creates constant worry “about what the next one will be about.”

I am not sorry that Beliefs took such a hold of my life. I am deeply grateful to the thousands of religious leaders, scholars and ordinary believers and nonbelievers whom I have encountered because of it. I regret that in so many cases, under threat of another blade coming down and another and another, I have failed to maintain contact with them and their work.

I forgive all those people who introduced themselves by saying that they read Beliefs “religiously.” And I will not miss worrying about what the next column will be about.


Define Social Justice.

The infamous Kathryn Lopez writes at that Teddy Kennedy and the left don't own social justice. Jack Kemp, who also died last year, also stood up for social justice. But Lopez is only promoting the right's version of social justice, a strain of the conservative movement that saw "compassion" as a way to shore up the support of the socially concerned - and to impose religious restrictions on "the least of these," an easy target because of their vulnerability in society. They sought/seek to reframe social justice as a patriarchal, religiously dictated approach to serving the poor, the undereducated, the unemployed. And doing so feels good! It means you can pat yourself on the back for your superiority.

I have no interest in painting a left-right, good-evil argument as Lopez does (based on "family values" and the "killing of the unborn.") Both sides of the legislative fence have instituted noble and ill-serving social policies. Many churches, even the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, work for the good of the underprivileged and have stood up for health care for immigrants, for instance. Churches do often make a difference for those in need. But when assistance is given with prayer strings attached, it takes the poor hostage. Prayer for food; the belief of the giver in exchanged for what is received.

When social justice is framed as paternalistic "charity" and comes with a strict religious or ideological concept of what lifestyles are acceptable, it becomes patronizing discrimination. Concern for unwed mothers, as noted below, is a good thing when absent the judgement of black women for "having out of wedlock sex" or black men for not marrying their girlfriends. There's nothing the matter with having a child out of wedlock unless you ascribe to a lifestyle view that determines marriage an answer to social problems. Or abstinence an answer to unwanted pregnancy. Such positions approach social challenges with ideological answers, answers that are found in traditional ideas of "life" and family structure and personal responsibility but have little to do with fact and autonomy.

Lopez seems to believe that enforcing traditional, religious laws on the underprivileged will return us to a golden day when all Americans were equal. That day never existed, nor will it. She is willfully ignoring personal freedom of faith and conflating it with poverty. Call it "spiritual poverty."

Our last president worked hard to paint his administration as "compassionate." To prove that compassion, he brought in faith-based initiatives and solutions to social challenges such as abstinence education which have again and again proven ineffective.

True, effective social justice is not the imposition of traditional or religious ideology on the poor. It is a fact-based use of the government's resources and laws to create equality. It is not an excuse to discriminate against lifestyle choices. Until the right gets that straight, they are still working to impose restrictions on segments of society they find lesser and distasteful, not lifting them.

And so right now the world may consider social justice a monopoly of the left. But it's not. The left's dominance over justice issues is a contention that deserves to be challenged. And the challenge has been laid down. It even has a Web site,, organized by the Heritage Foundation, and featuring a broad list of contributing organizations, where one can read: “We're troubled that four out of 10 children and nearly seven out of 10 black children in America are born to unmarried mothers, a fact that will cast a long shadow down the course of a child's life.”

They worry that the supposed answers to poverty have turned into an industry with little connection to the people it claims to serve - and they're concerned that government has eliminated the essential relationships in the solution-making process. At the same time, Jeff Kemp warns: “Our ideas seem very principled and pure. But if we treat ourselves as if we have our act together and are the paragons of virtue and everyone can get it because we've got these good ideas, then we've set ourselves above others and no one wants to learn from someone who's setting themselves above others. It's humility that allows your ideas to be transferred.”

That was Jack Kemp's approach. It's also what Ronald Reagan did when he attracted so many so-called Reagan Democrats. It's how you win, and not just elections. It's how you change the world.

“The character of a nation is determined by how we treat the least of God's children,” was a guiding principle by which Kemp operated, as Robert Woodson of the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise explained during the Kemp forum. That's only right.

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Those in Need Are Lazy. Systemic Poverty Is Not Our Fault.

Yes, I once worked for the woefully dated Investor's Business Daily. In marketing. But that was in the early 90s. I see their philosophy is still recklessly dated and discriminatory. If this doesn't wake you up this morning - should you have an ounce of moral justice in you - I don't know what will.

By Yaron Brook and Don Watkins who ignore facts, logic, the benefits of privilege, social structures, quality education and systemic inequality; and therefore this screed plays on the mythic and fallacious American idea of "all men are equal." By denying that government favors some races and classes over others, they've continued to feed their own - and their reader's - self-righteous ideas of superiority. Assuming that "the needy" are in need because they are lazy or inferior is blatant discrimination.

It is a prime example of ideological unreason. Factless. Hateful. Privileged. The result of poor thinking, and poorer reasoning. Ignorant of how society actually functions. That this sort of 80s and 90s argument can still be made is astounding to me, after "trickle down" and "entitlement" talk has been so disproven by the decimation of the middle class, continued poverty, joblessness, and other unsolved social ills.

But if one is committed to proclaiming this is the greatest country in the world without questioning why or how, without examining statistics that prove otherwise, how will this country continue as such? The superiority of a class or race in this country has been kept by such ignorance of facts - and to our detriment. Only when the underprivileged are able to contribute to society does stability grow. By usurping the "patriotic" mantle, those who work to oppress and demoralize only do damage. Because they fear losing their privilege, the benefits they and their families have generationally received at the expense of "the needy."

In the run-up to the Senate's passage of the health care bill, opponents of ObamaCare denounced it as an unprecedented expansion of government control over medicine.

They warned of the proven consequences of government medicine, pointing to the rationing that occurs in Canada and Europe.

They pointed to the low cancer survival rates in places like Britain. They cited statistic after statistic showing that ObamaCare will raise costs and lower health care quality in America.

They were right — yet it looks like Obama will get his bill. And even if the Republicans are able to pull off an upset, there is no question that over the coming years government control over health will continue to grow.

Why? Consider the history of government involvement in health care.

In the 1960s there was a perception that some elderly were not receiving adequate health care. To meet this need, Congress passed Medicare. The same concern was voiced about the poor. To meet their need, Congress passed Medicaid.

The same concern was voiced about those too destitute (or too irresponsible) to buy health insurance, and in the '80s Congress passed the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act, forcing emergency rooms to treat anyone who needed medical attention, regardless of their ability to pay.

The same concern was voiced about parents who were too well off for Medicare, but who nevertheless couldn't meet their children's health care needs, and in the late '90s Congress passed the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

The message is clear: If you have a need, you are entitled to have it fulfilled at others' expense.

The reason we continue to move toward socialized medicine is that everyone — including the opponents of socialized medicine — grants its basic moral premise: that need generates an entitlement.

So long as that principle goes unchallenged, government intervention in medicine will continue growing, as each new pressure group asserts its need and lobbies for its entitlement, until finally the government takes responsibility for fulfilling everyone's medical needs by socializing the health care system outright.

Some believe you can stop this process midstream: The government will intervene only to help those in dire circumstances while otherwise leaving people responsible for their own health care. But that's an illusion. If need entitles one to the wealth and effort of others, then there is no logical reason why the government should restrict help to some small subset of the "needy," and refuse to help the rest.

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