Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Society worries about the rise in antisocial behaviour, and at the same time the High Court rules that parents should be kept in the dark if their teenage daughters are referred for an abortion

In the same week that a High Court judge ruled against Sue Axon, the mother who challenged doctors referring teenagers for abortion without notifying the parents, Jenni Russell wrote a perceptive article about the damage that long working hours and institutionalised childcare does to children in the Guardian 28/01/06 “We give work a high priority - I wish the same could be said of our children - After 17 years as a parent, I'm convinced it is our attitudes to employment as much as to childcare that need to change”. Her focus was Labour’s childcare strategy to get children into nurseries by the age of three and wraparound childcare. She wrote about the growing concern for what prolonged parental absence does to children, and about the danger of “subcontracting ..childcare to professionals”, “As they grow, children need to feel loved and understood by the adults around them, and taught how to handle their emotions. That doesn't happen in after-school clubs or playschemes, where playworkers must retain a physical and professional distance. The consequence is that children have to make the effort of maintaining their public faces, too. They can't relax. A mother whose daughter goes to an after-school club three days a week says the eight-year-old is rigid with tension when she picks her up, and angry and unmanageable until falling asleep. Her experience is typical of many parents I know.”

Ironically, this appeared in Saturday's Guardian at the end of the week in which the High Court ruled that parents should be kept in the dark about teenagers being referred for abortions. Of course the ages of the children are different but the principle is the same that professionals are coming between the parent and child to the detriment of the good of the child. Unsurprisingly the cheerleaders of this interference are the self-appointed professionals at the Family Planning Association who gave evidence to the High Court in November that parents are "no longer necessarily the best people to advise a child" about contraception, sexually transmitted infections and abortion. My reaction on reading this in the Guardian on the 10th November was to wonder who is Nathalie Lieven?!!! I couldn't discover anything about her at all from the family planning association website. I have no idea what her qualifications are or what evidence she has for the arrogant assertion that her proabortion organisation knows better than millions of parents across Britain.

The point about qualifications is interesting because the “professionals” who are supposed to be better than parents are people who work for proabortion clinics, who by definition support abortion, not really professionals in any meaningful sense of the word, like the 21 year old school outreach worker, who referred Melissa Smith for an abortion and Melissa's subsequent wish to keep the baby when it was too late, or busy GPs who have a waiting room full of patients to see. Strangers in fact who do not know the child in front of them, who have no time for the child, have no particular bond, and will never see the teenager again, and will never deal with the aftermath of abortion. These are practical issues that have less to do with whether abortion is right or wrong - the parents after all could have views either way on the subject - the point of parental notification is to enable the child to have the best support available when they are distressed, except where there is obvious evidence that the child needs protection from the parents, which must be extremely rare. This was the response of one parent in the debate at The Times (25/01/06) the day after the judge ruled that parents should not be told:

"This is an abhorrent decision. My wife and I brought our children into this world; we love them dearly and would do anything for them. We feel our responsibility for them in every way. I realise that we may not be representative of absolutely everybody but I do not think that we are in a minority either. It is utterly ludicrous that a third party should be allowed to even counsel them, never mind treat them, on matters of such huge physical and moral importance without at least our knowledge, let alone my consent. The world is going, or frankly has gone, mad. If these are the kind of measures which it is believed are required to "protect" our children something is deeply wrong with our society. Richard Bell, Crowborough

What amazed me in this debate is how those who took the view that parents should not be told, on the basis of teenagers' fear, exhibited the kind of teenage thinking that adults should have grown out of! They completely missed how natural and understandable it is that a teenager would wish their parents not to be told and completely misunderstood the natural of parenting in terms of discipline, caring and nurturing. How incredible that the law could be based around teenagers hypothetical and, more likely than not, exaggerated fear of being told off by their parents. It also seems a little strange that the state collaborates in this kind of secrecy and coverup which will force children to hide the truth from their parents for the rest of their life.

We don't generally make public policy based on teenagers perceptions, but usually on a more sophistocated analysis of the facts by adults, so why is teenage perception dictating policy here? Abortion is something that is generally beyond the comprehension of most teenagers who may just be forming their views on the issue. Confidentiality is appropriate to ensure that patients are respectively treated but when the issue is something of as great a magnitude as abortion, with so much potential long term damage, children obviously need support. Can children really take in how serious abortion is? The BBC quoted the the Pro Life Alliance saying that it was staggering a young girl could "end the life of another human being without her parents knowing anything about it." Doesn't making this a matter for a teenager trivialise the seriousness of abortion?

The ironic thing is that with the exception of representatives of the abortion lobby, the majority of voices against the right of parents to know still acknowledged the need to involve parents as far as possible. Caroline Flint from the Department of Health was quoted in the Guardian saying that it was "a very difficult issue" and that healthcare professionals should always try to persuade a young person to involve their parents. The British Medical Assocation issued a press release which was strangely enthusiastic about denying parents the right to know (for a reason I couldn't quite fathom, why should doctors have a particular position on this issue?) nevertheless went on to say “Doctors always encourage young people to involve their parents in important decisions, and research shows that the majority of young people do so. If, in exceptional cases, they cannot talk to their parents then doctors try to give them the confidence to talk to another responsible adult who may be able to support them." And citing research against their own proabortion position, Marie Stopes International (an organisation which is certainly a little confused given by their support for a restriction of the abortion time limit to 20 weeks and their subsequent U-turn on this) nevertheless released a survey saying that the majority of teenagers do tell their parents. So if it is so important that parents should be told by the teenager then why are their guidelines insisting on secrecy? and with the spiralling abortion rate, isn't the willingness of the Department of Health to take their guidelines straight from the unrepresentative self appointed experts at the Family Planning Association a factor in increasing teenage abortions?

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Monday, January 02, 2006

Pro-cloning spin? You decide: Either The Times is right and "stem cell medicine was never going to depend on clones" or The Guardian is right and "Research that gave hope to millions of people with incurable diseases has been put "back on the starting line" by one of the worst cases of scientific fraud"

Having met a commercial lobbyist once who said he advised the biotech lobby in the UK in 2000 to concentrate on evoking images of cured patients in order to win support for human cloning, I wasn't surprised to see an article in the Guardian opening in the aftermath of all the negative publicity of the cloning scandal by the previously highly respected Korean cloner, with the words "Research that gave hope to millions of people with incurable diseases has been put "back on the starting line" by one of the worst cases of scientific fraud". Transparently as Wesley J Smith points out on his blog, Second Hand Smoke Current Spin: Hwang Fraud Not a Setback For Science (05/01/06) this is a means to counter some of the criticism and bad press surrouding cloning. Not only is the idea that cloning will lead to treatments factually untrue because cloning is practically difficult requiring vast numbers of eggs, as Mark Henderson pointed out in the Times HUman cloning was always a scientific roadshow (30/12/05), but it is also a strange way of putting it as though an act of fraud makes any difference to cloning's success.The point is not the act of fraud setting back cloning research, but the fact that cloning is so difficult that the scientist fabricated the results because he had no actual success to show. Moreover, contrary to patients' hopes being dashed by revelations of fraud, it is surely in patients' interest to know the truth. The truth is that cloning is unlikely to work, yet patients' hopes were raised says more about cloning hype and spin that allowed Hwang to get away with his cloning claims in the first place, even though it plainly stated in the research paper that the cloned embryos would not be able to be used in treatment because they would have the same condition as the patients they were cloned from.

The Guardian headline, "Cloning fraud hits search for stem cell cures " is therefore wrong on several different levels at once. Fraud does not help scientific endeavour, in fact it obscures it, so the cloning fraud revelations help the search for cures. At the same time, if cloning was never going to deliver cures anyway for the "millions of patients" in the Guardian's opening paragraph, which is recognised internationally, HUman cloning was always a scientific roadshow (30/12/05) then it is just as well that this avenue does not consume time and resources which would delay cures, even ignoring the ethical problems with cloning. Finally, by quoting patient groups that support cloning research and the use of embryos, the Guardian conveys the impression that the only avenue for cures is cloning and embryo research, failing to mention the success and promise of non-embryonic sources of stem cells such as bone marrow, umbilical cord blood and nasal stem cells.

Equally unsurprising as pro-cloning spin was the report in the Scotsman "Dying can aid stem cell research" which wasn't as I expected about the ethically acceptable donation of organs after natural death which I fully support, but Dolly-the-sheep cloner, Ian Wilmut's advocacy that embryonic stem cells should be tested on dying patients. The idea that terminally ill patients should be used as guinea pigs is clearly worthy of a shock headline or two, especially when it is casually mentioned that the purpose should be "saving their lives or at least speeding up the pace of research" which raises questions about what the risk to the patient would be from experimental treatment, whether they would be worse of by having embryonic stem cells injected which are known to cause tumours to form (which makes any possibility of clinical trials unethical, an issue raised at the Medical Research Council conference in November 2002), and seems massively premature as a suggestion at the very time when the Guardian is stating that embryonic stem cell research has been "put back to the starting line" because of the cloning fraud. Hardly the moment to try these cells out on the terminally ill. The use of human beings in research is an ethical boundary that should not be crossed unless it is demonstratably clear that the treatment has no harmful effects at all. That is not the case with embryonic stem cells. The Scotsman quoted Ainsley Newson, a researcher in medical ethics at Imperial College London as greeting "Prof Wilmut's idea with cautious optimism". This does not bode particularly well although she was quoted as saying that "all other avenues have been exhausted" - that experiments with animals have been tried, that terminally ill patients are not being exploited and that participants are aware preliminary research may only benefit future generations." In the light of the Guardian article and the spin surrounding embryonic stem cell research, it is questionable how realistic and accurate patients' understanding of the reality of embryonic stem cell research is, or for that matter that adult stem cells and non-embryonic stem cell sources are more likely to work.

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