30 July 2009

Nicaragua's assault on women

Amnesty International has issued a new report claiming that Nicaragua's total ban on abortions endangers the lives of girls and women, denies them life-saving medical treatment, prevents health professionals from practising effective medicine and contributes to an increase in maternal deaths.

The new law, introduced in 2008, makes abortion a criminal offence in all circumstances and provides for lengthy prison sentences for women and girls who seek an abortion and for health professionals who provide them. It allows no exceptions. It applies in situations where continued pregnancy risks the life or health of the woman or girl, and when the pregnancy is the result of rape. Even a pregnancy that cannot possibly result in a viable baby has to be carried to term.

The law goes even further. Medical treatment which results in the unintentional death or injury of a foetus is a criminal offence, regardless of the intention of the medical professionals concerned or the circumstances. Doctors who act to save a patient from dying as a result of obstetric complications risk their career and possibly their liberty. Examples of such interventions include treatment for malaria or HIV/AIDs, urgent cardiac surgery or intervention in a complicated birth. Even health care providers trying to save the foetus during a difficult delivery which results in the injury or death of the foetus can be prosecuted. A pregnant woman with cancer has to have the baby first, then treatment for the cancer, no matter what the risk to her survival.

And it goes further yet. Amnesty reports the law may punish girls and women who have suffered a miscarriage as it is often impossible to distinguish spontaneous from induced abortions.

And yet further. According to Amnesty, "Women human rights defenders have been subjected to legal harassment and accused of the public defence of a crime (apologĂ­a del delito) for campaigning for therapeutic abortion. This legal harassment has caused some fear on the part of others, such as doctors and nurses, and discouraged them from becoming too actively involved in campaigning on the issue. "

Kate Gilmore, Amnesty International's executive deputy secretary general, states, "There is only one way to describe what we have seen in Nicaragua ‑ sheer horror. Children are being compelled to bear children. Pregnant women are being denied essential life saving medical care."

The rape statistics lay out some of the horror to which Ms. Gilmore refers. Seventy-seven per cent of rape cases in Nicaragua involve girls under 17. Between 2005 and 2007, sixteen per cent of those crimes resulted in pregnancy, and the great majority were in girls of between 10 and 14. Wealthy women may, however, be spared the horror. It is an open secret that many well-off families send female relatives to Cuba for the procedure.

The question is why a government led by Daniel Ortega would pass such legislation. Although Nicaragua is overwhelmingly Catholic, the government is independent and secular, and Ortega is a socialist whose first term as president from 1985 to 1990 saw almost a third of executive positions occupied by women. We can only conclude that Ortega decided achieving victory in the 2006 election made a necessity out of betraying women to a misogynistic Church. Sacrificing young women to the gods has a long history in Latin America. The tradition continues.

28 July 2009

Big Pharma mugs Obama

President Barack Obama, in pushing for health care reform in the U.S., has emphasized the increasing costs of health care at least as much as he has emphasized the lack of adequate coverage for Americans. "This is an issue that affects the health and financial well-being of every single American and the stability of our entire economy," he has said. That statement is impossible to debate. About one out of every six dollars spent in the U.S. goes on health care, and two-thirds of bankruptcies in the country arise from medical bills. Three-quarters of those bankruptcies come from individuals who already have health insurance.

If Obama achieves universal coverage, ordinary Americans should be financially secure on the health front, but his plan may not do all that much for overall cost. In the first place, it won't include a single-payer system, an important element in reducing costs.

And that's only a start. After hearing from the pharmaceutical lobby, the White House and the Senate have agreed to omit from proposed medicare legislation the government's right to negotiate prices directly with drug companies. This measure has been highly successful in Canada in controlling costs, not surprisingly since drugs are the fasting rising component of the health care bill. Nor will the U.S. government allow cheaper drugs to be imported from Canada. Obama had included both these items in his campaign platform.

Obama and the Senate know that if they are going to get health care legislation passed, they have to take Big Pharma's money out of the equation. American politicians, like our own, answer to two constituencies: the people and the corporate sector. The American political system, again like ours, is less a democracy and more a hybrid system, with a democratic component and a plutocratic component. Both have to be placated. The American people will get the health care system they want to the extent the pharmaceutical companies get the health care system they want. Such is politics in the 21st century.

21 July 2009

The Pope as economist

I have long felt that the answer to achieving a humane and sustainable economy lay in neither extreme of a state-owned economy or a purely capitalist market economy, nor in a state plus capitalist economy, but rather in an economy that entertained both state and capitalist participation while emphasizing co-operative entrepreneurship. I am pleased to see that the Pope agrees.

In his recent encyclical letter "Caritas in Veritate," Pope Benedict XVI comments as follows in Chapter Three, Sections 38 and 39:
Today we can say that economic life must be understood as a multi-layered phenomenon: in every one of these layers, to varying degrees and in ways specifically suited to each, the aspect of fraternal reciprocity must be present. ... What is needed, therefore, is a market that permits the free operation, in conditions of equal opportunity, of enterprises in pursuit of different institutional ends. Alongside profit-oriented private enterprise and the various types of public enterprise, there must be room for commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends to take root and express themselves. It is from their reciprocal encounter in the marketplace that one may expect hybrid forms of commercial behaviour to emerge, and hence an attentiveness to ways of civilizing the economy. Charity in truth, in this case, requires that shape and structure be given to those types of economic initiative which, without rejecting profit, aim at a higher goal than the mere logic of the exchange of equivalents, of profit as an end in itself.
The exclusively binary model of market-plus-State is corrosive of society, while economic forms based on solidarity, which find their natural home in civil society without being restricted to it, build up society.
Amen to all that.

We have seen in very recent years the failure of both extremes, of a state-owned model -- Soviet-style Communism -- and of the unbridled capitalist market model of neo-liberalism. We have been reminded, in a particularly dramatic way, of the need for balance. What we need to see now is a greater emphasis on what the Pope refers to as "commercial entities based on mutualist principles and pursuing social ends," i.e. co-operatives. A globalization where "we must compete in the global marketplace" is replaced by "we must co-operate in the global society" is one I could believe in.

17 July 2009

Israeli apartheid comes out of the closet

Little angers Israel's supporters more than the accusation that the country practices apartheid. In the country proper the accusation has limited merit. Although Arabs are not equal citizens, they enjoy substantial rights, including the right to vote and run for office. In the West Bank, it's a different matter. There a system replete with walls, roads and checkpoints effectively maintains a high degree of segregation. The Israeli justification is of course the need to protect Jews from Arab terrorists, a justification not particularly satisfying considering that most of the people being protected are illegal settlers.

In any case, this kind of apartheid is now emerging in Israel itself. The minister of housing and construction, Ariel Atias, intends to implement housing policies that create separate townships for Jews and Arabs. He doesn't bother to justify this on the basis of security, but simply on the basis that Jews and Arabs shouldn't mix. His claim is disturbingly similar to the arguments Europe's anti-semites used over the centuries to justify confining Jews to ghettos.

Expressing his concern about the growth of the Arab population in Galilee, Atias observed, "If we go on like we have until now, we will lose the Galilee. Populations that should not mix are spreading there. I don't think that it is appropriate [for them] to live together."

To be fair, Atias is an equal opportunity bigot. He argues further that segregation should exist not just between Jews and Arabs, but also between ultra-Orthodox and secular Jews. He obviously has quite a tidy little country in mind.

11 July 2009

How happy are you?

I have posted before about the need for something better to measure a society's well-being with than Gross Domestic Product (GDP), the overwhelming favourite, if not the only, yardstick used by the economic, media and political elite. I have discussed the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI) and the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), both excellent measurements of a society's overall health. Now another alternative has come to my attention, the delightfully titled Happy Planet Index (HPI) , a product of the new economics foundation (nef).

The HPI is an innovative measurement that shows the environmental efficiency with which human well-being is delivered around the world. It reflects the average years of happy life produced by a given society, nation or group of nations, per unit of planetary resources consumed. It incorporates three separate indicators: ecological footprint, life-satisfaction and life expectancy. The nations that top the index aren’t necessarily the "happiest" places in the world, they are nations that are achieving, long, happy lives for their citizens without over-stretching the planet’s resources.

The leading nation according to the latest nef report is Costa Rica with an HPI of 76. Zimbabwe ranked lowest out of 143 nations with an HPI of 17. Canada came in 89th with a score of 39.

You can determine your own HPI on the Happy Planet Index website. I calculated mine at 70, short of the target (a good life that doesn't cost the Earth) of 83 but better than the world average of 46. Apparently I am using 2-3 times my share of the planet's resources, which surprised me considering I live in a small apartment and drive a small car which I don't drive that much. On the other hand, I ranked tops in the satisfaction with life category. So it would seem I can be best described as a happy glutton.

Happiness is an arbitrary concept of course but it has meaning in a human life that GDP simply does not. The fact we are seeing more attempts to measure the health of our societies comprehensively in ways that matter rather than just on how much stuff we consume is a healthy sign, a sign of maturity. There may be hope for us yet.

08 July 2009

Is it still five minutes to midnight?

The last time the board of directors of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reset the Doomsday Clock was on January 17th, 2007. As a result of North Korea's testing a nuclear weapon, Iran being suspected of nuclear ambitions, the renewal of American emphasis on nuclear weaponry, and the continued presence of the U.S. and Russia's 26,000 nuclear weapons, and the addition of climate change as a threat to humanity, the scientists set the clock ahead two minutes to five minutes before midnight, the metaphorical moment of humanity's catastrophic destruction.

Perhaps a recent development will lead the scientists to set the clock back a few seconds. Russia and the United States, who between them have 95 per cent of the world's nuclear weapons, signed an agreement on Monday to reduce their strategic nuclear arsenals by at least one-quarter. This is intended to be a first step toward drastically reducing the threat of such weapons and preventing their spread to unstable regions. The agreement sets the stage for a treaty that will reduce the number of warheads and missiles to the lowest levels since early in the cold war.

President Obama considers the spread of nuclear weapons an urgent issue, "one in which the United States and Russia have to take leadership” he has said, adding, “It is very difficult for us to exert that leadership unless we are showing ourselves willing to deal with our own nuclear stockpiles in a more rational way.” He is of course perfectly right, particularly keeping in mind that under the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty the two countries are obligated to reduce and eventually eliminate their nuclear arsenals.

This is a small step with a long, long way to go, but it is at least progress. It should be worth a second or two off the clock.

04 July 2009

Urban VIII and Exxon: from denying heliocentricity to denying climate change

Urban VIII was no dummy. Pope from 1623 to 1644, he was a patron of the arts, church reformer, composer of poetry and hymns, and holder of a doctorate in law from the University of Pisa. He was also the pope who arrested Galileo for promoting heliocentricity.

The pope was a friend and admirer of Galileo, yet he stood him before the Inquisition. Why would Urban, an intelligent, well-educated man, turn on his friend because of an idea? Some historians even suggest he accepted the idea of heliocentricity himself. The reason, we suspect, is because his first duty was not to ideas, not to knowledge, but to his institution. He saw heliocentricity as a threat to the Catholic Church, and if the truth had to be sacrificed to defend his institution, so be it.

Remnants of medievalism we might think today. After all, Urban was also the pope who excommunicated smokers because he believed the habit led to sneezing which resembled sexual ecstasy. But modern, enlightened, well-educated men of today are as capable as Urban as putting the interests of their institutions ahead of the truth. I offer as an example the heads of ExxonMobil, the world's largest oil company. ExxonMobil has for some time funded groups involved in undermining the science of climate change. It had promised to stop, but in 2008 was still supporting global warming deniers such as the National Center for Policy Analysis and the Heritage Foundation. The question is why men of this stature who are not only well-educated but who depend on science for their livelihood would betray science in this way, and the answer is almost certainly that, like Urban VIII, they put the interests of their institution ahead of the truth, even if they believe it themselves.

It is rather more serious now, however. Whether or not anyone believed the Earth circled the Sun was perhaps of importance only to the intelligentsia. But if climate change is not broadly recognized and dealt with, humanity is in grave danger. We simply can't afford Urban VIII's today. Modern technology threatens the planet in a way men of the 17th century couldn't imagine, and our leaders, in business as well as government, must rise to the challenge. Unfortunately, the leaders of one of the world's premier companies still linger morally in the Middle Ages.

02 July 2009

Why privilege the sons and daughters of the military?

Four Canadian universities will participate in a program that offers scholarships to children of parents killed in active Canadian military missions. "It is ... a way of honouring those who pay the ultimate price for serving their country," said University of Calgary vice-provost Ann Tierney.

The program raises some obvious questions. For instance, why offer scholarships selectively to the sons and daughters of parents who died serving in the military? Surely, other young people who have lost a parent are equally deserving.

As for their parent's sacrifice while serving their country, why should that privilege the sons and daughters? They didn't make the sacrifice. And what is special about dying while serving your country in the military? We all serve our country, at least those who are employed do, and people in many professions make the ultimate sacrifice while performing that service: construction labourers, fishermen, firemen, journalists, and so on. The project was launched by retired general Rick Hillier, now chancellor of Memorial University of Newfoundland. As a Newfoundlander, Hillier should recognize that the son or daughter of a fisherman who is lost at sea is every bit as deserving as the son or daughter of a soldier who is lost in Afghanistan. It may be politically incorrect to say so, but I see no reason to especially honour those who serve their country wearing uniforms and carrying guns.

If any young people are burdened in obtaining their education because of the loss of a parent, let's help them according to their need, not according to who their parents were.

01 July 2009

Calgary papers opt out of free speech

Calgarians bridle at references to their fair city as cowtown. And rightly so. There is much more to Calgary than cows. Judging by the behaviour of our two daily papers, however, one might think otherwise. The Vancouver Humane Society wanted to run an ad in the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun critical of calf-roping. Both papers refused to run it, even when it dropped a reference to the Calgary Stampede. "The greatest outdoor show on Earth" has often been thought to hold excessive influence in the city, but I hadn't thought it had enough to scare the press. Although it may have, I suspect the papers' timidity has more to do with the defensiveness against outsiders more typical of small towns than mature cities.

Calgary Sun publisher Gordon Norrie claimed the ad is in "bad taste." A Sun newspaper complaining about bad taste -- now that's rich. Actually, the ad is in rather good taste. No nudity, no four-letter words, some violence -- a photo of a man hurling a calf to the ground -- but no blood. The theme is that men who bounce baby animals off the turf are bullies. A soft-hearted ad, perhaps, even misguided from a macho perspective, but hardly in bad taste.

The Stampede didn't approve of the ad of course. They trotted out their usual line about caring passionately about animals, etc., etc. According to spokesman Douglas Fraser, "If we in any way mistreated our animals, they would not perform." The animals are performing? I think running for their lives is more accurate.

In any case, all is not lost for the Humane Society. The weekly newspaper Fast Forward is running the ad. It's reassuring to know some press people still respect dissenting opinions, even those critical of sacred cows (OK, enough about cows already).