Friday, July 27, 2007

The Morning After Pill

I see that the AP is reporting that a number of Pharmacists in Washington State are suing over a new regulation which effectively requires them to sell emergency contraception, also known as the Morning After Pill or Plan B.

The lawsuit argues that the regulation violates the plaintiff’s civil rights by forcing them into choosing between "their livelihoods and their deeply held religious and moral beliefs."

This is not an easy question. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other situation where you are required to do something that you honestly consider immoral. Even the Army makes allowance for conscientious objectors.

So what is it that makes the Morning After Pill so special that a Ma & Pa pharmacy can’t tell someone to go to the Rite Aid down the highway? I mean, even though it’s called the “Morning After” pill, you actually have about 72 hours.

On the other hand, why should one person’s opinion about what’s moral inhibit someone else from doing something that is not only perfectly legal, but for which that other person has no qualms about?

I think this is a little different from issues like abortion and stem cell research. In those instances, if you have moral issues, then no one is forcing you to participate in or facilitate those activities. It’s also different from the issue of Muslim cab drivers not wanting to take fares carrying alcohol. There we’re talking about a passive role but, with the pharmacy deal, we’re talking about a more active role. If I was convinced that alcohol was a tool of the devil would you force me to sell it in my grocery store? I think not. So why is this different?

Wal-Mart (I think) decided to stop selling guns on moral grounds after somewhere bought a gun there that they used to kill someone and we all cheered Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine” which unabashedly tried to pressure retail stores into not selling guns and ammunition.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for gun control and I’m all for a woman’s right to have control over her own body, but I’m squeamish about forcing, by law or regulation, someone to do something for which they have moral reservations.

These people aren’t taking the position that God doesn’t like it and therefore no one should be able to do it. They’re taking the position that THEY don’t like it and therefore they shouldn’t be forced to do it. The fact that the reason they may not like it is that they think God doesn’t like it strikes me as irrelevant.

I think I have to break with the liberal position here. I don’t believe anyone should be forced to do something they are morally opposed to. Washington State should rethink its regulation.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Election 2008 by the Issues

The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life has a page describing the positions of a dozen of the Presidential candidates on a dozen issues. The issues range from “Poverty” to “Church and State.”

Using this as a guide I assigned a weight to each issue and then ranked each candidate on each issue (except Poverty as I really have no position or understanding of this question).

Each issue was weighted either 5, 3 or 1. Leading the pack with a high weight of 5 were Abortion, Church and State, The Iraq War and Stem Cell Research. A medium weight of 3 was assigned to The Death Penalty, Education, Faith Based Initiatives, Gay Marriage and Immigration. I assigned a low weight of one to The Environment and Health Care.

Each candidate was given a rank of either 1 (I basically agree with the candidates position), 0 (I don’t really agree but I could probably live with the candidate position), -1 (I disagree with the candidates position) or -2 (I violently disagree with the candidates position).

Basically you then multiply the rank times the weight on each issue and then add up the products to get either a positive or negative value. A high positive value indicates significant agreement with the candidate’s positions while a high negative value indicates significant disagreement with the candidate’s positions.

In an election or primary you should vote with an eye toward maximizing the value of the winning candidate. The candidates came out relative to my personal opinions ranked as follows:

Bill Richardson (25)
Christopher Dodd (20)
Barack Obama (20) (Rank #4)
Joe Biden (17)
John Edwards (14) (Rank #1)
Hillary Clinton (8) (Rank #2)
Rudolph Giuliani (-3) (Rank #3)
John McCain (-13) (Rank #5)
Fred Thompson (-26)
Mike Huckabee (-27)
Sam Brownbeck (-30)
Mitt Romney (-31) (Rank #6)

The last time I talked about the 2008 candidates I ranked 6 (also shown in the list) based upon gut feel and my gut turned out to be pretty accurate. My problem with Obama was not his stand on the issues, it was whether or not he had the necessary political experience to take on the job.

I’ve always liked Richardson and this exercise makes it obvious why. But let’s face reality for a second. Unless something totally unforeseen happens, I’m going to, most likely, be faced with choosing between Obama, Edwards and Clinton since I don’t think Richardson, Biden or Dodd have any realistic chance.

All three took hits with a 0 on “Church & State” because of reported quotes that I found very shaky. Edwards is reported to have said that “freedom of religion does not mean freedom from religion.” This could have gotten him a -2 except for a number of factors, not the least of which is that he was purported to say it during an interview which included talking about the death of his son.

Clinton got the zero because of a cryptic quote to the effect that religious political officials should be able to "live out their faith in the public square."

I don’t know what the hell that means exactly but I don’t like the smell of it. Obama got his downcheck due to an inference to the effect that in some cases it would be ok to less strictly enforce the separation of church and state. He didn’t do worse because the cases he cited ("under God" in the pledge of allegiance and voluntary student prayer groups) were pretty benign.

So what separated the Big Three? Clinton got a downcheck from me on the Iraq War because she appears to be less comfortable with a timetable for redrawel than the other two and Obama got an upcheck over the other two on the Death Penalty because he seems to have a better grip on the lack of deterrent value and strikes me as the most likely to support, or at least not hinder, an abolition movement.

So I should support Obama? Maybe, if I can get over concerns about his experience and his ability to beat any of the possible Republican candidates all of which got negative scores including Guiliani. I still think Edwards has the best shot of winning so, in the best strategic voting tradition, I think I’ll stick with little Johnnie for the moment but I have to move Obama ahead of Clinton. That makes my new top three:

Rank #1 – John Edwards
Rank #2 – Barack Obama
Rank #3 – Hillary Clinton

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

Got it Saturday and finished it by Sunday night. I have to admit it was a little confusing at first because I didn’t go back and reread the previous book and my memory on some things was a tad hazy. That might have contributed to my feeling that the first half of the book was kind of dull.

Things did pick up in the second half and despite having to rely upon a rather awkward contrivance, which could only have been used in a fantasy like HP, to close up some of the dangling loose ends, I think JK did a masterful job of concluding the seven book saga.

There will be no spoilers here. If you want to know what happens, go read the book.

I’m going to miss Harry Potter even though there are still two movies to look forward to. I’m going to miss the speculation on the internet about what happens next and I’m going to miss the building excitement as the release of the next book approaches. Harry Potter was a phenomenon and I’m glad I got to participate in it.

Maybe JK will come up with a new hero and a new story line.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) Vehicles

An MRAP is an armored vehicle especially effective against mines and other roadside explosives. They have a V shaped bottom which diverts the explosive power of a mine and the passenger compartment is some three feet above the ground. The sides of the vehicles are also heavily armored.

These vehicles aren’t new. The basic technology has been around since the 1970’s and the pentagon evaluated and purchased some of the latest variations in 2000. These vehicles should have been the standard for combat patrols in areas potentially occupied by irregular forces. They’re resistant against mines, roadside bombs and other improvised explosive devices (IEDs). So, why aren’t our troops in Iraq using them? That’s a damn good question. The first problem was that Rumsfield and Bush et al. didn’t plan for the kind of insurgent warfare that Iraq turned into. They planned for a conventional war that was over in a couple of weeks. The second problem is that even after it became obvious to the rest of us that this fiasco was going to last a while the administration didn’t place a high priority on getting the right equipment into the hands of the troops in Iraq.

Given the lack of MRAPs, first unarmored and then armored HUMVEEs, which are not nearly as effective against IEDs, were used instead. This is just one example of the “just enough force” philosophy used in the Iraq war. Excuse my French, but screw that, in war what you need is OVERWHELMING force if you want to keep down the casualties.

Finally, finally, large quantities of MRAP vehicles are being purchased and will be shipped to Iraq in order to phase out the HUMVEEs for combat patrols. This should have been done BEFORE the war was started.

The delay has cost the lives of at least 1,000 soldiers and perhaps more. Pursuing a war but failing to provide the right equipment, MRAPs, improved personal armor and tactical communications gear, despite repeated appeals from the troops in theater and military experts is to my mind a criminal offense.

Let me make this perfectly clear. There are 1,000 or more young Americans dead simply because they were sent into a war without the proper equipment. This equipment was readily available but those that planned and ran the war were either too incompetent to realize it was needed or just didn’t care.

This is a crime that can be laid right at the door of the Bush Administration. Like I’ve said before, Bush, Cheney, Rumsfield and Rice not only deserve to get booted out of office, but I’d like to see them in the dock on charges of criminal negligence. They might not deserve to be convicted but at least we’d have a record of the blatant stupidity of the worst administration in American history.

Davis Execution Stayed

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has stayed the execution of Troy Anthony Davis for up to 90 days or until the board lifts the stay.

This will allow attorneys for Davis time to better establish their case for clemency. The Georgia Board is limited to either commuting Davis’ sentence to life, with or without the possibility of parole, or allowing the sentence to be carried out. In a separate action Davis has appealed to the Georgia Supreme Court to overturn a superior court ruling rejecting a motion for a new trial.

The Georgia Board of Pardons and Paroles has done the right thing. Let’s hope that the courts now do the right thing and consider the motion for a new trial based upon the evidence at hand and not the rules of the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

Monday, July 16, 2007

Death Penalty Update

On July 11th, South Dakota executed the volunteer Elijah Page. This was the first execution of the modern era for South Dakota and reduced to four, Kansas, New York, New Jersey and New Hampshire, the number of states with death penalty statutes that have never used them.

Page’s execution brings the number of executions in 2007 to 30, 18 of which have been in Texas. There are 26 still scheduled through the end of the year, including 12 in Texas.

One of the pending executions is scheduled in Georgia tomorrow, July 17th. Troy Anthony Davis was convicted more than 20 years ago of killing an off duty police officer in Savannah Georgia. There was no physical evidence against Davis. His conviction was based upon the testimony of nine eyewitnesses.

Since then seven of the nine have either recanted or changed their testimony. Some are now saying that their original statements were given only after police harassed them and pressured them to lie under oath. Some are even saying that another man, who testified against Davis during his trial, is actually guilty of the crime.

There is a hearing today, July 16th, before Georgia’s Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider clemency for Davis.

Sounds like something out of the Twilight Zone doesn’t it? Seven of the nine witnesses have recanted, but Davis is still scheduled for execution tomorrow? How is that possible you ask? It’s possible because the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA), passed in 1996 to streamline the legal process in death penalty cases, says that it’s too late in the appeals process to introduce new evidence. As a result the courts have refused to consider Davis’ innocence claim.

My only reaction to this is you have got to be kidding! So much for the idea that the law is merely an imperfect means for bringing about justice. When the law becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to an end, we’re all in trouble. When a potentially innocent man can be executed simply because we’d like to be more efficient and save some time and money on the guilty ones, we’ve lost our way. I can’t think of a more telling argument for eliminating the death penalty. The only way we can think of to make it financially efficient is to ignore evidence of innocence? What’s wrong with this picture?

You want to talk about moral values? Here's a moral value that I'd like to talk about. Potentially innocent men shouldn't be executed so we can save a little time, a little money and a little inconvenience.

Friday, July 13, 2007

Lady Bird, Paris Hilton, Harry Potter and Tintin

What do these have in common? Absolutely nothing other than they’re all in the news at the moment.

Let’s address the sad news first. Lady Bird Johnson passed away this week at the age of 94. I was really sorry to hear that. She was a fine woman and one of the few remaining icons of my misspent youth. The 1960’s are rapidly fading into the mists of time. It’s hard to believe that it was 40 years ago when Lyndon and Lady Bird were entertaining visiting dignitaries with a barbecue at the LBJ Ranch.

I understand that the Johnsons donated the ranch to the National Park Service as a historic site in 1973. The main house was closed to the public during Lady Bird’s life but will now be prepared for visitors. I wouldn’t mind taking a look see at that.

Now let’s move on to poor little Paris Hilton. The latest word in the news is that the Los Angeles Sheriff’s department is opening an investigation into rumors that she was given “special treatment,” whatever that means, during her 23 days in jail for violating probation on her alcohol related reckless driving charge.

Duh, ya think? I would have been absolutely flabbergasted if she hadn’t received special treatment! Good looking, rich, white girl ends up in the pokey and she doesn’t get any special treatment? That would have been a veritable fairy tale comes true story. Wake up and get a grip on reality.

That brings us to Harry Potter. The fifth movie, “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix” has just been released and the seventh, and final, book, “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” is scheduled for release on July 21st.

The hysteria on the internet about the plot of the seventh book, and the final fate of the series heroes, is growing exponentially as the date approaches. The big fear of course is that JK kills off Harry in the final book. I think if that’s the case, it would sort of deaden the enthusiasm over the current movie. It might even limit any interest in movies of the sixth and seventh books, at least among the younger fans who I think would be terribly disappointed at the demise of the main hero. Hell, I would be terribly disappointed! I still haven’t gotten over the deaths of Cedric Diggory and Dumbledore. Call me old fashioned, or na├»ve, but I’m still into happy endings where the good guys win.

Finally we have Tintin, the 1930’s era comic strip about a reporter and his dog snowy. A Tintin book, first published in 1931, called “Tintin in the Congo” somehow made it to the children’s section shelves of Border’s in the UK. Now remember, we’re talking the era of Jim Crow in the U.S. and European attitudes about blacks that made the American South look progressive. Needless to say the portrayals of the native population, in what was than known as the Belgian Congo, would make you wince.

Even the author, Belgian cartoonist Georges Remi, had said the book embarrassed him and later additions had some of the most objectionable material removed. Well, this was an unedited version in all its racist lack of glory. Granted, the book came wrapped in a warning and had a forward explaining its “colonial content,” but still, give me a break. To make matters worse, in case you missed it,THEY PUT IT THE CHILDREN’S SECTION! When did a kid ever read a forward?

Even Tintin fans acknowledge that the book is racist as hell. So what was Border’s reaction to complaints? It moved the book from the children’s section to the adult section. I sort of agree with the guy that said "The only place that it might be acceptable for this to be displayed would be in a museum, with a big sign saying `old fashioned, racist claptrap.'"

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

APA to Review its Gay Counseling Policy

According to the AP, the American Psychological Association (APA) has established a six member task force to review its current policy on counseling gays. The current APA policy, adopted in 1997, opposes any counseling that treats homosexuality as a mental illness, but does not explicitly denounce reparative, or conversion, therapy which is aimed at changing an individual’s sexual orientation.

Conservative religious groups around the country are up in arms over what they view as a “pre-ordained” conclusion because the task force is packed with anti-reparative therapy individuals.

The Conservative position is that if someone with a homosexual orientation, because of religious or other issues, wants to try and change their sexual orientation, then psychologists and psychiatrists should respect those wishes and attempt to help with reparative therapy. The gay and lesbian rights position is that such therapy is not only ineffective but psychologically harmful especially when applied to minors at the insistence of their parents.

The director of the APA's Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Concerns Office, insisted the panel would base its findings on scientific research, not ideology. He defended the decision to reject certain conservative applicants to the task force by saying "We cannot take into account what are fundamentally negative religious perceptions of homosexuality — they don't fit into our world view."

Gee, that sounds a little strong! I suspect what the director means is that one can’t get around the problem, that anyone with a religious conviction that homosexuality is a choice and sinful, has almost got to ignore or rationalize any scientific data which contradicts that belief. I would hope a similar concern would be recognized in having a gay member on the panel.

But from the article it sounds like even folks that hold non-religion based positions that reparative therapy, when the patient wants it, should be available have been excluded. In other words, you’re damn straight the panel is packed to come to the conclusion that reparative therapy is harmful.

This is a tricky one. If reparative therapy is potentially harmful then aren’t doctors, since they should follow Galen’s advice to “do no harm”, constrained from offering it? How do you insure that members of any review panel, for any situation, rely on the facts and not preconceived notions? The answer is that you can’t. The most you can do is try to avoid including the extremists and demand that the rationale for the conclusions be documented and recommendations justified.

To be honest with you, I don’t know what the data indicates. I would suspect that, if sexual orientation is either genetic or hormonal in nature as the evidence seems to say, then reparative therapy would be, in most cases, pretty much an effort in futility. If you are told that one can change if one really wants to, and oh by the way, one’s “immortal soul” is in jeopardy of spending eternity in a lake of fire if you don’t change, and you can’t, what would that do to your self-esteem? I suspect the old self-esteem would take quite a shellacking, leading to depression, which in turn could lead to contemplations of suicide. Precisely what opponents of reparative therapy claim is the problem.

On the other side is the argument that one should respect an individual’s values and provide the therapy if the patient wants it. I have two questions for supporters of this position. First, how come the same logic doesn’t apply to abortion access? Second, it’s one thing for an adult to choose potentially harmful therapy, but what about a minor? Do parents have the right to make that decision for their children? I would say the answer to that question should be no.

I suspect the APA task force will recommend against reparative therapy. Let’s hope that they do so based upon sound science and not political principle.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Pope Benedict Reasserts Catholic Primacy

According to MSNBC News Services, Pope Benedict XVI has reasserted the universal primacy of the Roman Catholic Church. He approved a document released Tuesday that says Orthodox churches were defective and that other Christian denominations were not true churches.

Apparently, the Orthodox churches defect is based upon their failure to recognize the primacy of the pope, but other than that they’re ok because they have Apostolic Succession (they can trace their origins back to one of the original apostles). But the other Christian denominations weren’t true churches because they had no Apostolic Succession.

This is the second role back from the Second Vatican Council; the first was the re-institution of the Latin Mass.

Duh, no real surprise here. Secretly, no matter how much they smile and talk about ecumenical co-operation, all Christian sects are convinced that everyone else is going to Hell. Some Fundamentalist sects are even looking forward to viewing the torments of the damned as a sort of heavenly entertainment.

I'm sure that you'll be relieved to know that the Pope's assertion (or reassertion) makes absolutely no difference to anything that matters.

Theology is such a waste of the gift of intelligence.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business

A while back I read an excerpt from Michael E. Berumen's book, "Do No Evil: Ethics with Applications to Economic Theory and Business," about his thoughts on the Religious Mind. Berumen makes the following observations about this scariest of topics.

“It seems to me that people of a religious bent are especially apt to confuse their beliefs with understanding or knowledge. Things are thought to be true simply because they believe or desire them to be true…”

To be fair, we all do this don’t we? The difference is when people do this on non-religious subjects, it’s considered correct to criticize them for it, but when it’s applied to religion, we’re supposed to admire the individual’s “faith.”

“To my mind, there are several principal features of the religious temperament that stand out more than others, namely, fear of the unknown and a need for certainty…”

We’re all afraid of the unknown. It’s a natural human emotion and generally a pretty darn good instinct that can keep us out of harm's way. The problem is that our only real advantages are our intelligence and our ability to reason. When we allow our fears to cripple those advantages, we’re asking for trouble.

“A hallmark of the religious mind is what appears to be an overwhelming need to have others believe the same things… By their very existence, nonbelievers, deviants, and apostates shake a believer's confidence in his view of the world, which he finds wholly intolerable.”

Again, this is normal human nature, but the mark of a civilized society is the ability to accept differences and plurality as a sign of strength rather than as a threat. This is the fundamental conflict at the core of a believer who lives in a western democratic society.

His religion is telling him one thing and his secular society is telling him something totally different. Often, with little or no justification, the two get merged in the mind in order to resolve the conflict. A perfect example of this is when Martin Luther King defined a “just law” in terms of “the law of God” in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail. But what is this “law of God” that King spoke of? Inevitably it is the moral code established by men and then justified by attributing it to God.

The fiction of plurality and tolerance is maintained only as long as the non-believers “respect” religion. The Islamic Fundamentalist’s uproar over the Danish Cartoons and the Christian Fundamentalist’s ongoing assault upon evolution illustrates the potential reaction when non-believers are, according to the believer, “disrespectful.” How far behind then is interpreting non-belief itself as “disrespectful” or “blasphemous?”

“They, of course, confuse piety with morality…”

Yes they do, and I’ll go further than that, they define piety as one aspect of morality.

Yet the definition of piety depends upon the nature of one’s god(s) doesn’t it? The Romans not only equated piety to morality but to good citizenship as well. The gods blessed the state and all good Romans were expected to honor the gods in return. A failure to do so was considered treason. The Romans had no problem with you honoring your own god(s) as well, as long as you respected the gods of the state. These are the “certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire” that King, and other Christians, believe early Christians were justified in disobeying. Why? Well, simply because of a clash in the definition of “piety.”

Religion, and especially Christianity, is loud about their having the moral high ground. If you challenge them on this they will inevitably point to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. Yet there are a dozen interpretations of the sermon, none of which propose that you should follow it literally regardless of the consequences. In other words, Jesus’ teachings are followed selectively. Who does the selecting? Why men do of course. You’ll excuse me if I’m not impressed.

Friday, July 06, 2007

No Jail for Scooter Libby

I have to put my two cents in about this one. However, surprisingly, I don’t have a real issue with Bush commuting Libby’s sentence to simply two years probation.

Why you ask? Simply because Libby was the fall guy and, while I don’t consider that admirable, he isn’t the real villain in the piece and therefore I don’t consider using him as a whipping boy necessary.

Just get us to January of 2009 and, hopefully, we can begin to erase the nightmare of this administration. I did think it was enlightening however that the only defense these bozos could come up with in response to criticism over the commutation was a whine to the effect, well, Clinton did it too. You know you’re in serious trouble when the President of the United States can’t do better than tu quoque in justifying his actions.