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Sex selection: Consumer right or violence against women?

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 27th, 2008

Banner produced by the Centre for Social Research, a women's rights group in New Delhi.

Is the main problem with sex selection that do-it-yourself kits for testing fetal sex aren't as accurate as their makers claim?

From this point of view, the issue is one of consumer choice and rights. That's how it's portrayed in a recent Los Angeles Times article about a federal lawsuit filed by more than 100 women against one of the several makers of such sex selection tests.

Or is sex selection a pressing social issue? That's how it's understood in much of the world. At the United Nations, Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has just announced that opposition to sex selection - which he describes as denying "countless" women "the right even to exist" - is part of a new 15-year UN campaign to end violence against women.

The UN has been raising alarms about sex selection since 1995. In a short video called Girls Gone Missing, the UN Population Fund says it "undermin[es] demographic balance and the human rights of women and girls" and explores its "long-term negative consequences for social, economic and gender parity."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

The Religious Right: Pronatalist? Only if you are white.

Posted by Jesse Reynolds on February 26th, 2008

The American religious right's particular advocacy of pro-life, pro-family, and pro-children leads it to oppose real equality. How this plays out for women is often clear: They should forgo a career to raise children while relinquishing control of their bodies. But the stunning cover story in the latest issue of The Nationreveals the racist implications of these positions. Perhaps feeling their domestic influence wane, Christian conservatives are looking abroad, warning that Europe faces the prospect of a "demographic winter" due to declining fertility among native (i.e. white) Europeans and higher rates among immigrants, primarily Muslims from the Middle East and north Africa.

This is not a fringe movement. Groups dedicated to heading off this "end of European civilization [that] can be counted in years" have forged an alliance among evangelical Protestants, Catholics, and particularly Mormons, and have made alliances with the big shots: the Heritage Foundation, the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America, Focus on the Family, and even former Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney. This coalition taps into not just reactionary religiosity but also fear of terrorism, homophobia, sexism, anti-Semitism, and opposition to immigration, both moderate and explicitly xenophobic.

In case the racial message wasn't clear enough (winter is, of course, the season of darkness), anecdotes such as this one highlight it:

At the national level, in 2004 [conservative] Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi offered a "baby bonus" of about $1,000 to parents who had a second child.... The racial preferences behind Berlusconi's "baby bonus" came into embarrassing relief when immigrant parents were accidentally sent checks for their offspring and then asked to return the money: the Italian government hadn't meant to promote those births.

Of course, calls for people of certain races to have more children because others are having too many isn't just racist - it is eugenic. That it seeps from the political right should come as no surprise to those who have a basic understanding of twentieth century European history. But it may come as a surprise to those who have bought into the use of anti-eugenic rhetoric from the right wing, which sometimes tries to smear abortion rights with the historical association between early abortion advocates and eugenics movements. Ironically, that rhetorical has been used by some of the very organizations that now back higher fertility among whites to prevent a dark "demographic winter."

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

PhRMA and BIO self-image: Downtrodden and besieged

Posted by Marcy Darnovsky on February 25th, 2008


It's always odd when the privileged and powerful lay claim to the status of victimhood. An example of this unattractive phenomenon is displayed on the cover of the latest issue of The Journal of Life Sciences, shown here.

This slim bimonthly publication, launched last year, carries a mix of business and lifestyle features for the biotech and pharmaceutical industries. The February/March issue, for example, includes a lavishly illustrated story about San Diego golf courses as venues for high-powered bioscience deals, as well as assorted news on the industry's financial and policy prospects.

Though it has the look of an independent magazine, TJOLS is a project of venture capital firm Burrill & Company and the California Healthcare Institute (CHI), a lobbying and trade group. Its advisory board is made up of academic science heavyweights and bioscience financiers and CEOs, including five current or former members of the California stem cell program's board.

The current issue’s cover story - the one illustrated by the governmental jackboot crushing a scientist - examines bills and hearings of concern to Big PhRMA and Big BIO in the current Congressional session. On the sub-textual level, it's a fascinating read. Suffused with an anxious tone and accompanied by another strikingly dire image (researchers bound and gagged in red tape), it basically concedes that the bio-industrial complex doesn't have much to worry about from the current crop of lawmakers.

Last year's FDA reform bill, which takes effect this year, is judged benign. "We were worried that, in the wake of Vioxx, there would be draconian safety provisions, but we avoided that," comments an "optimistic" James Greenwood, BIO CEO and former Republican Congress member from Pennsylvania. (The Vioxx scandal, in which Merck's ibuprofen alternative caused at least 40,000 deaths from premature heart attacks and strokes, led to expectations of a meaningful FDA overhaul. But that's not what happened. As independent analyst Merrill Goozner put it, "Commercial interests still trump safety concerns at America's drug oversight body.")

Greenwood and other industry commentators go on to note additional provisions in the legislation that will "bolster innovation" and remove "burdens" on product development.

So the regulatory climate is looking pretty darn comfy. And the pharmaceutical industry continues to be one of the most profitable in the world – the second highest in the US in 2007. But the captains of bioscience still reserve the right to whine: In their introductory publishers' comment, Steven Burrill and CHI head David Gollaher complain that "anxiety about a government `takeover' of American medicine is not merely political posturing."

A Day Late and a Dollar Short

Posted by Osagie Obasogie on February 22nd, 2008

Secretly videotaped footage by the Humane Society of America showing cows too sick to walk being forklifted, shocked, and dragged to the slaughterhouse has led to the largest beef recall in American history: 143 million pounds, 37 million of which went to school lunch programs. Although the recall only pertains to meat packaged by California-based Westland/Hallmark Meat Company over the past two years, the USDA openly admits that most of the recalled meat has already been eaten - fortunately without incident.

What's ironic, however, is that if we're so concerned about the health risks associated with eating sick or abnormal animals, why on earth has the FDA approved meat produced by cloning - a method known for producing significant abnormalities - for human consumption? The Center for Food Safety notes:

Most cloned animals born on a farm, outside a veterinary hospital, have little chance of surviving. Those animals that manage to survive until birth are likely to suffer a wide range of health defects and deformities including: enlarged tongues; squashed faces; intestinal blockages; immune deficiencies; diabetes; high rates of heart and lung damage; kidney failure; and brain abnormalities
Or, as Rudolph Jaenisch of the Whitehead Institute has noted, "cloned animals have major dysregulation of multiple genes, so they are not normal at all." Sound tasty, eh? Let's just hope that it doesn't take the USDA two years to figure out that it’s probably not the best idea to eat this stuff. 

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