Sufficient Scruples

Bioethics, healthcare policy, and related issues.

January 22, 2013

Blog for Choice Day 2013: Decimating Law to Eviscerate Women’s Rights Under the Law

by @ 8:20 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

January 22: the anniversary of Roe v. Wade, and a perennial high point in the continuing relentless fight for women’s rights. This year is the 40th anniversary of the decision that gave women their own bodies back, and it comes at a time when the autonomy conferred by that court decision, the simple fact of self-governance that ought not to require any ratification or authorization in the first place, is more embattled than it has been at any time since.

There’s much to say about this ugly time, the vicious, bitterly vicious, unrelenting backlash that since the Bush years has been ever more shameless in its naked hatred for women’s independence and, still worse, their sexuality. The truly fascist and deeply dishonest legislative assaults that have erupted in so many states over the past two years are as shocking as they are disheartening. And the creepy and untiring campaign to undermine, by every devious and indirect means, women’s access not only to abortion services, but contraception and all reproductive healthcare, including even breast cancer screenings, is both revelatory and repulsive.

But aside from the infuriating and burdensome details of this multi-front war on women and their bodies, what particularly strikes me is the pervasive bad faith that drives it. Abortion rights have always been threatened by attempts to undermine the laws which make it possible for women to exercise their inherent rights to control their own bodies and lives. But the new face of the war against them is not one of wrong-headed but above-board legislative controversy. It is a persistent and thoroughgoing attempt to turn the law itself against the majority of the citizens it governs – to use the law to make it impossible for law-abiding citizens to exercise the rights guaranteed them by that law.

Bans on funding for non-abortion related services, bans on the provision of factual information about abortion by healthcare providers to their own patients, prohibitions on the provision of abortion and reproductive health services through government programs relied on by women who have no other source of care, disingenuous regulations intended to make it impossible for women’s clinics to function for reasons unrelated to the quality of their services, and so many other restrictive and intrusive regulations, all are uses of the democratic process to make it a practical impossibility for women to exercise their own rights. And all of these are thoroughly and deliberately dishonest: they block factual information, and in some cases even stipulate falsehoods, to women seeking to make an informed choice about their own healthcare; they erect barriers and regulations addressing questions of funding, safety, or other ordinarily-reasonable aspects of healthcare provision for reasons entirely unrelated to their ostensible purposes and with the deliberate intention of making service to patients impossible; they malignantly distort the bedrock principle of medical ethics – informed consent – to harass, intimidate, and manipulate women seeking to make a free and informed choice about their own care, and drive them to a choice dictated by political and religious ideologues motivated by a deep-seated and gnawing hostility to those women themselves.

The enemies of women, having seen that orderly debate, under the framework of rights guaranteed by law, was not their friend in their war to take women’s lives into their own hands against those women’s wills, have adopted falsehood and bad faith as their weapons of choice. Nothing is now what it seems in this fight: informed consent is deception and manipulation; safety regulations are intended to prevent safe access to the services sought (and consequently drive women to seek unsafe alternatives, the rate of which is rising in the United States for the first time in decades); funds for services unrelated to abortion are banned out of nothing more than a virulent hostility to the organizations that provide the funded services because they also support women’s rights to abortion.

So much is at stake in the war against women. But the perversion of this war into a distortion of democracy itself, and the twisting of the law to undermine the law in the lives of one specific, hated, targeted sub-group of the population (the majority of that population, no less, but ever a despised and insecure majority) has broadened its scope, even beyond the lives, dreams, and freedom of more than half the country’s citizens. It has allowed a rabid and unhinged minority of religious berserkers, and the politicians they hold captive, to turn the nation against its own citizens.

It is said “when one is not free, none are free,” but that is truer than ever in the latest total-war assault on women by the religious right. They have adopted scorched-earth tactics against civilization itself – against the law that guarantees the freedom to live under the law, using the law’s defenses as weapons against those whom they defend. No nation can claim to be civilized which terrorizes and enslaves its female population. But the right wing has abandoned civilization even in form, not merely in substance, willingly gutting law itself when its guarantees of freedom thwarted their plans for domination.

What other rights remain, when the right to exercise one’s rights is denied?

February 1, 2012

Susan G. Komen Foundation: Cowardice and Hypocrisy

by @ 4:46 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Disability Issues, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Women's Issues

You’d think one of the most high-profile women’s health organizations in the country would steer clear of misogynist religious-right campaigns to curtail woman-centered healthcare. You’d be wrong.

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October 1, 2011

Complexities of Transexual Procedures, and of Progressive Healthcare

by @ 7:35 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Biotechnology, General, Healthcare Politics, LGBTQ Issues, Medical Science, Provider Roles, Theory, Women's Issues

There’s a great post up at Skepchick, discussing a supposed regimen for “natural” transexual procedures for female-to-male transitioning. Debbie Goddard (@DebGod) responded to a question from a writer who was approaching the FTM transition but was uncertain about surgery and hormone therapy, and had heard about a program of exercise and “natural” supplements similar to that used by “natural bodybuilders”. DebGod’s response and the discussion that ensued fascinated me. I encourage people to read it; then I’ll have some comments to make.

What got me onto this is that there’s just so much cool stuff in this post and the comments thread. I don’t have anything to say about the basic question of natural transitioning, but I want to point out several things that come up in the discussion.

First, it’s interesting that this post arose on a skeptic (i.e., atheist, anti-paranormal) site in the first place. Transexuality isn’t inherently an issue for skeptics, but the questioner identified as a skeptic and was apparently feeling vulnerable as both a transexual and a skeptic, so sought out a welcoming community. He found the right place: DebGod happens to be gender-queer, and is knowledgeable about transexuality and a former bodybuilder, and the community of readers was supportive. From some of the comments, it appears that many perceive the skeptical community as not uniformly welcoming for LGBTQ people – something I hadn’t known or expected. This post included some interesting discussion of LGBTQ issues among skeptics, and raises questions that – especially in light of the recent conflict over misogyny among skeptics (notably involving another prominent Skepchick poster) – I hope the skeptical community will take the opportunity to address.

More importantly, DebGod’s response is a model of careful and helpful analysis. She gives her own background, with appropriate disclaimers, then lays out the issues clearly and concisely. She notes red flags with the claims being made (no professional credentials, buzzwords, trademarked terminology, skeptical responses from people directly affected). She then reviews the suggested procedure, notes that it relies heavily on biochemical supplements, comments intelligently on their purity and efficacy, and discusses the vague distinction between “natural” and “non-natural” that the promoters take advantage of. She seeks information from a more knowledgeable source. Shen then concludes by running down all the issues this analysis raises, categorically, giving pros and cons for each and pointing out dangers. This is a really well-done, intelligent, well-argued analysis, at least as good as that commonly seen from Quackwatch or prominent skeptics like PZ Myers.

What I really like about DebGod’s analysis is that she is carefully value-neutral in all of this. Though it’s clear that there is much to be worried about in this suggested regimen, she never takes it on herself to make other people’s decisions for them. Her final statement is a clear and balanced sketch of the relationship between all the competing factors – health, personal goals, available support, and insurance or income – that influence a decision among the many different options for transitioning; she doesn’t declare any of them right or wrong for any individual, but makes it clear that each may be better or worse under different conditions. She includes just a single sentence offering her opinion that the “natural” process is too risky and low-benefit, but clearly identifies it as her own perspective and doesn’t insist that anyone else has to adopt it. She really gets her role as guide and analyst, as opposed to parent, judge, or dictator – something that so many culture-critic blowhards, and even many licensed professionals, can’t accept.

As she notes:

When it comes to gender identity and transsexualism, where you want to go, who you want to be, and how you want to do it is up to you, of course.

- a message that needs to be heard more widely, and not just regarding transexualism.

That leads to another issue that comes up obliquely, but importantly, in the comments. The medical community’s response to transexualism has been mixed, in ways that have generated a lot of resentment in the T/Q community even when the doctors and psychologists thought they were being helpful. For many years, transexuals seeking medical treatment in the US were commonly required to conform to the so-called “Harry Benjamin Standards of Care” (now the “World Professional Association for Transgender Health Standards of Care”), requiring extensive counseling and explicit authorization from multiple psychologists, and a set period of pre-treatment life in the transitioned gender, before professionals would agree to provide the requested treatment. Those standards have been eased but still exist. Many critics have pointed out that this is not only paternalistic but unnecessary – transexual patients have a higher level of success and satisfaction with their treatment than patients of many other conditions, including cosmetic procedures, that do not involve such heavy-handed gatekeeping. The professional societies – starting in the 1950s, when this work was extremely controversial – saw themselves as protecting patients and preventing harmful mistakes, while also going to lengths to provide treatments that more conservative caregivers would have prohibited in the first place. Patients, however, saw it as condescending, offensive, and wasteful of time and money. (Note that in other parts of the world, clinical standards for transexual therapy are much looser or non-existent; there is no known epidemic of regretful genderflippers.)

There are some very interesting comments from “natalie1984″ noting that the sex-reassignment gatekeeping system has been eroded in recent years, and along with it the stereotyped view of what it means to “really” be transexual or gender-dysphoric in the first place. Not only has therapy become more accessible, but what kind of therapy and what therapeutic endpoint the patient seeks have also been thrown open. As she notes: “Now we’re all able to simply work out for ourselves who we are and what we want from transition, and what will make us feel happiest”. She speaks with understanding of why many healthcare professionals are not current on T/Q issues, and simply encourages patients to find caregivers they are comfortable with. There’s also an interesting exchange further down the thread between her and one of the promoters of the natural therapy. She comes across as uncompromising but smart, thoughtful, and understanding.

There’s more, including the politics of gendered pronouns, but even just this adds up to a rich and complex discussion, with intersections between skepticism, healthcare autonomy, gender issues, and, vaguely, perhaps some philosophy-of-science stuff. What this post brings up for me is the deeply connected ways in which such issues always do surface in any similar debates over the proper application of facts to values – that is, the use of science or medicine to achieve chosen goals in human lives, and the conflicts that arise between those who control the science and those whose goals are at stake. It is common in ethics and philosophy of science to emphasize the “fact/value distinction”, but real cases often dredge up facts – and perceived facts – from many aspects of our lives, and competing values that arise from very different lived perspectives.

In this one issue, the skeptical community provides a useful mindset for analyzing clinical claims, but has also been charged with hostility to the LGBTQ community in whose interests those questions are asked. The “natural health” community offers the autonomy and self-direction that many patients want, but also harbors liars and scammers. The doctors who invented the sex-assignment gatekeeping system that so many transexual people hate did so as a way to make it possible for those patients to get care than had never previously been available. It is impossible for anyone to assert an exclusive claim to the moral or epistemological high ground here.

This stuff is hard, and, like so many progressive programs, requires a dedication to working through all the implications of a given position, and to striving to make one’s positions more defensible, more responsive, and more accepting. Every one of these communities – the skeptics, the healthcare professionals, the alternative-health promoters, and to some degree the LGBTQ population as well – have work to do in that way. Some of it has been done, though, and some of it is being done now, over at Skepchick. Good start.

August 26, 2011

The War on Women: Reality Optional

by @ 3:21 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Personhood, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Theory, Women's Issues

Rick Santorum – humiliated in his last electoral bid, and trailing badly in the GOP primary polls – knows he needs to keep saying outrageous things to keep himself in the public eye. Plus which, he’s crazy, so saying outrageous things is never difficult for him.

He’s been in the news lately for making bizarre comparisons of gay marriage to beer, a cup of tea, and a paper napkin – all predicated upon the rather obvious but undeniable point that “it is what it is. Right? You can call it whatever you want, but it doesn’t change the character of what it is”. This is a claim on which Santorum congratulates himself by describing it as “sort of metaphysical”, but might otherwise be categorized as “sort of idiotic”. Apparently it means something to him, though, because he keeps saying it – most recently in a just-posted interview on the Iowa Independent Website: “It’s like going out and saying, ‘That tree is a car.’ Well, the tree’s not a car. A tree’s a tree. Marriage is marriage.” He goes on to spew a frothy mixture of crazy in a wide arc: gay marriage “minimizes what that bond means to society” (by letting people . . . form that bond . . .); “you’re gonna undermine religious liberty in this country” (his examples consist exclusively of the liberty to prevent other people from doing things); “we’ve created something that is not what it is” (so much for the tautological metaphysics).

But there’s a particular moment in the interview I want to highlight, because it captures so perfectly the ideological dishonesty, and complete divorce from reality, of the right-wing, and particularly the anti-choice movement.

If your position on abortion prevails and abortion is prohibited, Senator, what should the penalty be for a woman who obtains an abortion or a doctor who performs one?

Santorum: I don’t think there should be criminal penalties for a woman who obtains an abortion. I see women in this case as a victim. I see the person who is performing the abortion as doing the illegal act

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August 9, 2011

Abortion Funding Assistance for Women in Need

by @ 3:49 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Healthcare Politics, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

From “Fund Abortion Now“, the blog of the National Network of Abortion Funds – non-profits that provide financial assistance to women in need of an abortion – comes this list of funding sources by state:

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June 4, 2011

Religious Right Victory: Child Rape and Paternity Rights for Rapist

by @ 4:41 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

I missed this story when it first came out: a 10-year-old girl in Mexico became pregnant after being raped by her step-father. Abortion is legal with restrictions in Mexico City, but hardly at all outside the capital. In most areas of Mexico, including where this girl lives, abortion is illegal at any time beginning with conception; in her state there is a “rape exception” good only for the first 90 days of pregnancy. The girl is being held outside her home, in a state child-care facility, and it appears she or her mother were not even informed of the existence of even this limited right to abortion. Now it is long past time for that option, and of course there is no hope of her traveling to some state or country where she could get care at this date. It appears that she has no hope but undergo a full-term pregnancy against her will, and give birth, at the age of 10, to her rapist step-father’s child.

Note that these abortion laws: forced pregnancy from the time of conception (not the beginning of pregnancy itself); limited or no exceptions for cases of rape or incest; refusal of authorities to assist in obtaining abortion even when it is legal; state coercion and withholding of truthful information to manipulate women and girls out of exercising their legal right of choice; and general hostility to choice in all its forms, and collusion of state officials to impose forced pregnancy outside the bounds of the law, with impunity – are exactly the policies promoted and supported by the religious right in the United States. In Mexico, where the Catholic Church has much greater social and political power, they have been enacted and are in force.

So if you want to know what it looks like to live in the kind of country envisioned by “pro-life” forces in the US (though with a bit less Catholicism), this is exactly what it is: 10-year-old girls raped and subject to incest held in a locked ward by the state to force them to bear the child of their rapist, with virtually no legal rights to make their own choice in the matter, and what little legal rights they do have systematically withheld from them by force and deception, by the state itself. Every aspect of this case has been managed in such a way as to ensure that this girl – note again, 10 years old – is forced to do what the religious right and the culture of patriarchy have chosen for her life and her body: bear children under force and duress, through rape and incest, while held under guard as her rights and her body itself slip away from her control. Once more, these are exactly the laws the US religious right is campaigning for; this is exactly what they want and will get.

Let me make one final point: Recall again that it is the Mexican law that prescribes forced pregnancy for child-rape victims in that country. It is the Mexican Police who are holding this girl to prevent her from exercising the limited rights the law grants her. If she had come to a US Planned Parenthood clinic needing help in this case, she could have gotten an abortion; the US religious right demands that Planned Parenthood turn her over to the police. It is one of their main complaints against PP: that they provide healthcare on demand, rather than violating confidentiality and turning rape victims over to the state – and their families, which may include the rapists themselves. PP trusts women – even girls – to know whether they are willing to be pregnant or not; the religious right demands that they do so.

For Planned Parenthood, what a rape victim deserves is the power and the right to reclaim control of her body. For the religious right, what a rape victim deserves is to bear the rapist’s child. And the younger the better, apparently. They got what they wanted in this case. And they’re coming for more.

May 26, 2011

Ugly Grandstanding on Abortion (. . . Again . . .)

by @ 7:25 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Disability Issues, General, Healthcare Politics, Medical Science, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

Today’s news is that an amendment to the Republicans’ medical-residency defunding bill, prohibiting the use of any medical-education funding for “training in the provision of abortions”, was passed in the House by an overwhelmingly partisan vote. The event is not of great practical significance: this amendment is very unlikely to emerge from the Senate, and the bill is almost certain to be vetoed anyway. But it marks yet another front in the right wing’s ceaseless war on women’s healthcare, and yet another point-scoring display of how reckless – or simply antagonistic – they are willing to be with women’s lives.

The amendment is odd, though, and uglier even than it seems. It is so vaguely written that it is hard to figure out just how it would work if it were enacted, but its most likely interpretation would be literally deadly. It also extends the odious “conscience clause” for neglect of patients to every health plan, contract facility, professional group, doctor, nurse, or other staffmember at every medical school and teaching hospital in the nation, through a single sentence in this seemingly minor funding provision regarding training for one specific type of care.

The text of the amendment is here (scroll down). Recall this is an add-on to a larger bill; the parent bill seeks to defund all residency-level training in hospitals and medical schools nationwide, to force a new budget fight for training subsidies every year thereafter, rather than allowing block funding with less meddling. That bill by itself is part of the Republican assault on mainstream medicine – this proposed amendment is just a little anti-choice icing on the cake:

(d) Prohibition Against Abortion.–Section 340H of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. 256h) is amended by adding at the end the following new subsection:

“(k) Prohibition Against Abortion.–

“(1) None of the funds made available pursuant to subsection (g) shall be used to provide any abortion or training in the provision of abortions.

“(2) Paragraph (1) shall not apply to an abortion–

“(A) if the pregnancy is the result of an act of rape or incest; or

“(B) in the case where a woman suffers from a physical disorder, physical injury, or physical illness, that would, as certified by a physician, place the woman in danger of death unless an abortion is performed including a life endangering physical condition caused by or arising from the pregnancy itself.

“(3) None of the funds made available pursuant to subsection (g) may be provided to a qualified teaching health center if such center subjects any institutional or individual health care entity to discrimination on the basis that the health care entity does not provide, pay for, provide coverage of, or refer for abortions.

“(4) In this subsection, the term `health care entity’ includes an individual physician or other health care professional, a hospital, a provider-sponsored organization, a health maintenance organization, a health insurance plan, or any other kind of health care facility, organization, or plan.”

 

The Meaning – Such As It Is – of the Amendment

The amendment is so badly worded that it’s not clear what it actually does. Section (k)(1) – the central defunding provision – prohibits any residency training money from being “used to provide any abortion or training in the provision of abortion”, but this is far from self-explanatory.

The first part is confused: the funding in question (defined by the parent bill, HR1216, which addresses “funding for graduate medical education in qualified teaching health centers”)  is for post-graduate medical education (i.e., medical residency programs or the equivalent), not actual clinical care, and the infamous “Hyde Amendment” prohibits federal money for abortion care in the first place, so the “provide any abortion” provision here would seem to be superfluous at best.

The real issue – and the way the amendment has been packaged – is the denial of funding to train residents in abortion techniques, with an eye toward making abortion unobtainable by flooding the country with surgeons and OB-GYNs who are simply incompetent to provide this standard care. Since almost all residency training takes place in facilities receiving federal subsidies, this provision, if enacted, would mean the coming generations of doctors would receive no training at all in central aspects of women’s healthcare. (It might be possible to obtain such training at the resident’s own expense, but it’s not clear where that would even be possible, since this amendment would restrict almost all centers even capable of providing the training regardless of who paid for it. The only realistic alternative would be to go overseas – again, at the doctor’s own expense – and even that would not necessarily be availing, because it raises licensing questions and is not a practical option for all residents, even the ones who were willing to go to such lengths.) This is not a new tactic on the anti-choice right wing; at one point, Georgetown University’s Medical Center attempted to ban its GYN residents from obtaining abortion training anywhere, even on their own outside the program – and this when such training was still funded. But making it mandatory, inescapable, and nation-wide, is a step never before taken.

But it also seems that much of the intended impact of the amendment could be escapable. Here, the strange wording of the amendment provides a paradoxical loophole. Section (k)(2) allows exceptions for “an abortion . . . ” involving the usual grudging set of special horrors (rape, incest, death*) that some of the right wing are willing to overlook. But, again, notwithstanding the wording of the amendment, there is no funding addressed by this amendment or its parent bill that would “provide an abortion” under such conditions, since it does not provide funding for clinical care in the first place. So these exemptions for “an abortion”, if they do anything at all, must modify the prohibition on “training in the provision of abortions” – that is, Section (k)(2) apparently grants exemptions for federal funding for “training in the provision of an abortion . . .” in pregnancies involving rape, incest, or the threat of death. But of course all techniques used in abortion may be used in cases involving these exempted situations – so presumably federally-funded health centers can provide any kind of appropriate “training in the provision of abortions” for pregnancies involving rape, incest, or the threat of death - after which it’s the doctors’ own concern how they actually put that training to use!

At least, that’s how it reads, in strict logical terms. That may not be how it would be implemented, however. It’s clear from the legislative history of the amendment – the discussion on the floor before it was voted on – that, regardless of the grammatical deficiencies of its author, it was in fact intended to prohibit all training in abortion techniques.† Probably the courts would interpret it that way, even if that’s not what it says. So in practice the impact of the amendment is (a) to prohibit (with few exceptions) all abortions provided using medical-residency training funds – a category which does not exist, and (b) to prohibit all training in all methods of abortion regardless of likely application.

 

Scope of Ban

The result of all this, as noted, would be to permanently exclude competency in certain standard professional practices from the skill set of all US-trained physicians in all specialties, even including surgery, obstetrics, and gynecology. The skills in question, it should be noted, would almost certainly include, among others, the following methods most commonly used in pregnancy termination:

However, every one of those techniques is used for purposes other than abortion (most commonly, to remove dead tissue left by menstrual troubles, fetal death or an incomplete miscarriage). As noted above, the strict text of the amendment allows training in “abortion” techniques if it is not intended to facilitate abortion, but that’s obviously not what the author hoped for, so presumably it must be interpreted to include any technique that could be used in abortion, regardless of its common application. That would also include:

 

Impact of Ban

What would it mean if doctors were banned from all training in those techniques, for all purposes? Well, among much other harm, it would mean that any woman would face almost certain death from any of the following conditions, for which one the above techniques is the standard treatment:

It would also mean that women would have no access to standard or best practices under any of the following conditions, among others, because those treatments involve techniques that could be used in abortion:

And of course there’s the whole conspiracy-of-silence-about-birth-control thing (see ‡ below).

In short, this ban – if it were enacted and if it were implemented as intended, and as anticipated by its legislative history – would kill even more women in the US, in coming years, than are currently sacrificed every year from the current lack of abortion providers. We would see a return to death from emergencies in childbirth – even for women not seeking elective abortion – at levels equivalent to that in some Third-World countries (since, given that appropriate care would be banned under this amendment, women facing certain labor-related emergencies would essentially be getting Third-World care even though best-practices-level care could have been provided). Many more would suffer, some greatly, from the lack of access to perfectly ordinary and preferred treatments for conditions having nothing to do with abortion. By making it illegal for physicians in training to obtain the necessary skills to treat a wide range of common gynecological conditions, some of them life-threatening, this amendment simply condemns their future patients to death, permanent disability, and other suffering from conditions for which safe and effective treatments were available, and which are universally practiced in every other advanced nation, but which their US-trained doctors were prohibited from learning.

[NB: I am not a clinician. The information above is common knowledge from widely-available sources. I am confident it is accurate; it is likely incomplete - the full impact of this legislation is likely worse than I have been able to describe. For actual clinical guidance or practical healthcare purposes, be sure to consult a knowledgeable clinician who has a full range of professional skills (i.e., one who was trained at a non-misogynistic healthcare center before this ban was enacted).]

 

Comments

As with so much of Republican “healthcare”, it’s hard to imagine this policy could ever be taken seriously, or enacted in any nation that makes a claim to basic decency. But as so often has been the case in the past, it’s best to be prepared to be surprised by what levels of indecency Republicans are willing to reach.

As I noted, the amendment contains inherent loopholes that its legislative history makes clear were unintentional. It may be possible to circumvent some of its provisions nonetheless, by sequestering training in the relevant techniques to programs ostensibly aimed at other conditions: that is, teach vacuum aspiration as a treatment for dysmenorrhea, teach dilation and extraction as a procedure for removal of a dead fetus after incomplete miscarriage, etc. This could work, but only if the ban were confined to overt training in abortion as such, and not to training in any procedure that could be used for abortion. There is no question how vicious, and how hostile to the lives of women seeking abortion, the supporters of this bill are; it remains to be seen if they are willing to sacrifice innocent breeders, too, in their pursuit of death for rebellious hussies. Virginia Foxx, the sponsor of this amendment, is known for her bizarre and incoherent beliefs; I think it is really likely she just does not understand the implications of her own amendment, and it would not in the end be taken to the extreme of a complete ban on all gynecological surgical methods. Or would it?

At any rate, the stupid and ugly thing is not going to pass. But it is worth considering just how serious its sponsors were, and how far they were willing to go, to kill and punish women who sought control of their reproductive organs, through the medium of their own doctors – how far they were willing to go to make the ignorance that characterizes Republican health and science policy across the board in fact mandatory for those who refuse to adopt their values voluntarily. As in so many cases, denial of knowledge is both the substance of, and a weapon for imposing, the right wing’s values as punishment upon those whose crimes are knowledge and independence.


 

* Note that only death – not merely unendurable pain, permanent disability, or traumatic stress – is grounds for exemption. And, too, the section on the woman’s health repeats the phrases “physical disorder . . . physical injury . . . etc.” four times, making it clear that there is to be no sympathy extended to women whose traumas are psychological, whether or not life-threatening, because that’s not part of your “physical” health. Apparently the people who are convinced there is such a thing as a soul are not convinced there is such a thing as a mind.

† This raises another issue: the technique for “provision of abortions” in the case of medical abortions – RU486 or similar medications – is simply to conduct an appropriate examination and write a prescription. The “techniques” for doing so are used in the treatment of every condition, and the specialized knowledge involved in using this particular medication is trivial to acquire independently. So, again by the strict logical meaning of the text, either hospitals are prohibited from teaching residents even to write prescriptions – unless they argue that techniques that merely could be, but are not intended to be, applied to abortions prohibited by this amendment are therefore not prohibited in their non-abortion contexts. And that – again, if logical consistency means anything – would authorize all abortion techniques, medical or surgical, for the reasons I explained in the preceding paragraph. But these are Republicans we’re talking about.

‡ And of course the anti-choice nuts characteristically go so far as to define mere fertilization as a “pregnancy”, and I have no doubt that the supporters of this amendment would argue that its provisions apply not merely to the prescription of abortion by medication, but also to post-coital medical contraception such as Plan B. But . . . Plan B and its like are essentially equivalent to nothing more than high doses of ordinary prescription birth control, and in fact ordinary birth control pills can be used for that purpose without a separate prescription. So presumably this amendment would also prohibit either training in prescription of oral contraceptives, or at least mentioning the fact that they can be used for morning-after contraception. So far does the absurdity extend, if you take this policy seriously.

May 25, 2011

Doctors Censoring Patients?

by @ 12:02 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles

Latest really bad idea in the medical marketplace: doctors demanding that patients sign a “mutual privacy agreement” that grants copyright to the doctor of any reviews or commentary the patient may ever publish regarding that doctor – in other words, giving the doctor censorship rights over any evaluations the patient may make of the doctor, such as on doctor-rating Web sites.

Even worse, this agreement is apparently the product of some sort of doctors’ legal service called “Medical Justice”, whose purpose is to  “(1) Deter frivolous malpractice claims; (2) Address unwarranted demands for refunds; (3) Prevent Internet defamation, and (4) Provide proven, successful counterclaim strategies to hold proponents of frivolous suits accountable” – which is to say, intimidate patients in order to give doctors a edge over them in any legal dispute. As Timothy Lee points out in the post linked above, their waiver policy is likely useless, and may be fraudulent: copyright assignment is usually granted in return for compensation, but given the somewhat coercive nature of this agreement (his dentist’s office manager actually threw him out of the office when he objected to it) and the lack of an employment-related justification for the claim on copyright, copyright experts he quotes say the agreement is likely unenforceable; also, the agreement claims to provide the patients with privacy guarantees that go “beyond HIPAA”, but in fact the particular (relatively benign) practices it covers are already banned under HIPAA, meaning the promises made to the patient in the agreement are not only worthless but actually false. But most patients won’t know those things, so the agreement still hampers their rights of expression even if it is unenforceable or even illegal. It gets worse: the agreement requires a “loser pays” financial penalty for any lawsuit (in contrast to standard US practice), making malpractice suits potentially financially ruinous for the patient, especially if the doctor’s insurance firm adopts the strategy of deliberately running up their own bills to create risk to the plaintiff  (see Goals #s 1 and 4 above!); thus it hampers the patient’s ability to seek legal redress in addition to imposing on their rights to seek and share information.

It’s hard to count how many things are wrong with this: creating an abusive caregiver/patient relationship as a pre-requisite to treatment; chilling patient free speech and access to information about caregivers; cynically twisting completely unrelated provisions of copyright law to straitjacket the healthcare treatment environment; inequitable restrictions on patients’ rights and legal remedies for harm; not to mention just plain fraud and deception. What seems most unnerving to me is that such a bizarre and intrusive instrument (signing away your copyright?) has entered the healthcare environment at all.

More and more healthcare becomes just like any other marketplace: primum caveat emptor has become the contemporary Hippocratic credo, and deceptive, misleading, and grossly one-sided terms of service rule every aspect of the treatment process, from privacy to quality of care to access to caregivers to prescription drug availability to the ability to seek compensation for mistreatment. Though this particular “privacy” agreement is abusive in new and strange ways, the erosion of patients’ rights and remedies is far, far gone already. Medical “privacy” now means only that you must sign a form granting your caregiver and your insurance company the legal right to violate your privacy at will; access to treatment is deliberately hampered by adversarial gatekeepers who use your own medical history against you; mandatory arbitration for malpractice, on terms favorable to the insurance company or doctor, is now a common requirement of many health plans. You have no choice but to sign away all these rights, since the ubiquity of their implementation in the for-profit medical industry, and the lack of choices most patients have regarding treatment plans and costs, means even those lucky enough to have access to treatment at all usually have no access to treatment under respectful and empowering terms. What is shocking in this new approach is only how bold and shameless it is. What is sure is that there will be more of that coming.

May 21, 2011

If You’re Disabled, Don’t be Different

by @ 9:02 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, Disability Issues, General, Healthcare Politics, Theory

So there’s a minor news bubble developing over the situation of Stanley Thornton, the “adult baby” recently profiled on a reality-TV show.Thornton lives an “adult baby” lifestyle – he dresses in baby-type clothes and a diaper, and has a nurse/baby relationship with a live-in friend who acts as a mother figure; she takes care of him and he is dependent on her, and they like it that way. There’s a surprisingly large community of such people, including the usual Internet chat rooms, Web sites, and so on. In addition, Thornton receives Social Security disability payments, due to a reported heart condition as well as taking multiple prescription medications. His caretaker is also on disability, for what reason I don’t know. They are not housebound, but neither is apparently employable; at any rate, neither has held a job in some time.

The problem is that they were incautious enough to go on a National Geographic TV special about “taboo” lifestyles. Senator Tom Coburn saw it and has now pressured the Social Security apparatus to investigate this particular person based on his appearance on the show. His ostensible grounds for complaint are that, from what he saw on the show, he believes Thornton appears to be capable of supporting himself:

Given that Mr. Thornton is able to determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public, drive himself to complete errands, design and custom-make baby furniture to support a 350-pound adult and run an Internet support group, it is possible that he has been improperly collecting disability benefits for a period of time.

The first thing to be said about this is that Coburn seems to have a very strange idea of what “disability” consists in, or what is or is not required to hold down a job. There is nothing about being SSI-eligible that implies you cannot “determine what is appropriate attire and actions in public”, or drive a car or take care of personal needs such as performing errands. And there is a vast gulf between being able to do all or any of that and being able to support yourself in a capitalist economy (to say nothing of one in a years-long recession with close to 10% unemployment). Coburn seems to harbor both a very condescending view of what disability is, and a typically hard-hearted view of what self-reliance requires: the disabled are essentially children, mentally non-competent, cannot even choose their own clothes, and certainly cannot act independently in public, drive, or run errands unsupervised; at the same time, anyone who’s not actually bedridden ought to earn their own living or die trying. Coburn’s worldview seems to be taken from a Dickens novel: spastic lunatics chained to the walls in Bedlam, and starving cripples begging in the streets. In addition, Coburn’s apparent belief that anyone who can cobble up a chair out of 2x4s (I’ve seen pictures of Thornton’s furniture; he’s not exactly Sam Maloof) should be working as a full-time woodcrafter is rather absurd, and the idea that maintaining a Web site imputes the ability to earn a living identifies someone who is clearly struggling to grasp the nature of the intertubes.

But for all its confusion, Coburn’s statement at least seems to focus on the right issue: it’s true that Thornton is not qualified for SSI disability payments unless he is actually disabled and partly or wholly unable to support himself, and it’s not unreasonable to ask whether that is true.  Given that Thornton does offer his furniture plans for sale, and he and his friend apparently also offer a paid sleep-over service catering to other adult babies, he apparently does have some income and there may be a legitimate question about his qualifications for disability. As far as it goes, that’s not an unreasonable question to ask.

What gets me about this is that a senior US Senator took the time to pursue an inquiry against one single individual under a program that accounts for close to $13 Billion per year, or more than 20% of the entire national budget. Does he really think that is a productive use of his time? More to the point, was this really prompted by a suspicion that this one disabled guy might have some illicit sturdy-furniture income he hasn’t been reporting, and Coburn is determined to find out how much that is?

It seems obvious that Coburn focused on this case not because this SSDI recipient has made two or three pieces of exceedingly simple furniture (Coburn’s letter notes that one basic chair took him a year and a half just to design – hardly qualification for gainful employment), but because “his choice to live as an adult baby violates societal norms”, as Coburn himself puts it. In fact, although Coburn’s letter ostensibly focuses on Thornton’s possible ability to hold a job, it repeatedly mentions his lifestyle. More than that, Coburn’s official Senate Web page touts the same letter without a single reference to actual qualifications for disability; instead, it proudly notes that Coburn is “requesting an investigation of how people choosing certain lifestyles – focusing specifically on those who live their lives role-playing as ‘adult babies,’ are able to get taxpayer-funded Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI)”. In short, Coburn is using his position as ranking Republican on the Senate Sub-Committee on Investigations to bring down the heat on “people choosing certain lifestyles” – for which the issue of possible income on the side is only a convenient pretext. And the crowing and mockery this has already generated on the usual right-wing Web sites can easily be imagined.

It’s hardly worth saying that this is ugly and mean-spirited, or that it makes little sense if taken at face value. Whether or not this person is disabled has nothing to do with how he chooses to dress or what kinds of emotional relationships he values. And the nonsense about driving, running errands, or designing furniture is pathetic as an excuse for a challenge to what is apparently a documented medical disability. Coburn has found someone whose lifestyle he disapproves, and is taking advantage of the fact that it’s unusual and off-putting to many people to harm that person while grandstanding on the issue to promote his anti-social, anti-government ideology.

It’s not like he wouldn’t have been glad to cut anybody else’s Social Security benefits (Coburn has consistently voted against virtually every aspect of Medicare, Medicaid, SCHIP, and other healthcare programs, against the SSI “lockbox”, and in favor of privatizing Social Security). But finding someone in the program he can despise, and then inviting (and getting, in spades, from the right wing) open mockery of that person’s lifestyle as a lever for attacking their health benefits, is a right-wing two-fer: hurting people who aren’t like them, while casting social welfare as unnecessary or a fraud. The message, in political or social terms, is clear enough. But the message for the disabled, and those with alternative lives, is also clear: if you’re disabled, don’t be weird, because it makes you a target; and if you’re weird, don’t expect help if you’re also disabled, because you don’t deserve it.

May 6, 2011

Who Let the Loons Loose?

by @ 11:35 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Personhood, Sex, Women's Issues

Amanda Marcotte (@AmandaMarcotte) asks on Twitter:

Why oh why is our country in the grips of a sex panic? I just don’t get it.

My response was:

Obama backlash was greenlight for all wingnuts; every hate/fear is now OK, unhidden, synergistic.

I’d like to de-Twitterize and unpack that a bit.

(more…)

April 9, 2011

Demographic Trends are Choices on the Large Scale

by @ 11:55 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

Interesting comparison from the US Census Bureau:

Gravida Status - US Women, 1976 & 2004

The percentage of women who reach the end of their fertility with zero or one live-born child almost doubled over a recent 28-year period. The fraction who had 3 or more has been cut in half. These are remarkable trends. The fact that nulligravidity has almost doubled, to nearly 20% of women, is especially striking. Forty years ago, childlessness was almost always a product of circumstances; now, for at least about 10% of women and probably far more, it is a choice (i.e., childlessness has grown by 9% in that time; the maximum rate of biological infertility in 1976 – two years before the first “test tube baby” – was 10.2%, but surely at least some of that childlessness even then was chosen; today’s rate of actual biological infertility is likely lower still, thus, most likely, well under half the current nulligravidity rate of over 19% is due to true infertility, with the rest the product of women’s active decisions not to bear children although they could).

In fact, the shift in total lifetime fertility over this period is markedly toward lower numbers at every level: the category of 4 or more children has declined by the greatest percentage, followed by the category of 3; the fraction of women with exactly 2 children has expanded markedly, but the fraction with just 1 has expanded more, and the fraction with 0 has increased most of all. Comparing the categories shows how pervasive the shift to smaller families has become: not only are more women not having children, but few are having very large families (the percentage of women with 4 or more children has plummeted, almost to the fraction of women who had none at all 40 years ago), and with 2 now being the most common choice, but 1 or 0 (combined) even more popular; essentially, most women who might have had 4 or 5 kids are now having 3 or 2, and those who might have had 3 or 2 are in many cases now having 1 or none. As has been widely reported, the overall fertility rate in the US now is about 2.0 – 2.1, which is just below the replacement rate; it has fluctuated at that level for over a decade and shows no signs of changing. (Hispanic women are the only ethnic group with higher fertility, and that is concentrated largely among recent immigrants.) This also is a choice – one that represents a remarkable shift from 100 years ago, when lifetime fertility was about 4 children per woman.

It’s interesting how sensitive to conditions the total fertility number is as well: within less than a generation, it dropped to about 2 during the Great Depression and through WWII, rose sharply to 3.7 during the Baby Boom, dropped to an all-time low well below 2 in the mid-70s, and has slowly risen to its current stable level just below replacement. Thus, average total fertility is capable of shifting, either up or down, by a factor of 2 in as little as 10 years, and has done so several times in the recent past. Women have always made choices about their fertility, but increasing economic security and more-reliable access to birth control has likely made those choices easier and more authentic. From this perspective, then, the currently stable average total fertility rate of 2 can be regarded as what economists would term a “revealed preference” – a choice women have made when they were free to make their own choices. (Another revealed preference: the percentage of women who remain in the workforce after having children has grown by a factor of almost 2 compared to 1976, and more since before then.)

This has many implications for the United States and the world, in terms of population levels, economic activity, demographic shifts affecting distributions by race, class, and age, and so on. But aside from those often-remarked consequences, what this shift, and its historical roots, tell us, is how far voluntary choices about fertility are part of people’s lives and their strategies for dealing with both reproductive and social opportunities. This shift – which parallels that in other developed countries – demonstrates that fewer children, greater control of reproduction, and greater participation in the external economy and other activities, are the life patterns that women (and their male partners) choose when circumstances allow it. (The only major upsurge in fertility in America in the last century was immediately after WWII, when young men who had been displaced by the war returned and began the reproductive lives that had been delayed for a period of years; the long-term trend has been downwards, and temporary upswings have generally been small.) And this in turn emphasizes how important that freedom is to people’s lives and the goals they hold for them.

The most obvious, and currently salient, lesson to be drawn from this, of course, has to do with the importance of effective and available family planning. Just a day after having narrowly avoided a shutdown of the entire US government over a dispute centered largely on continued funding of Title X – the nation’s only dedicated family-planning healthcare program – and the right-wing attack on reproductive healthcare in general, the recklessness of such policies, and their cost to people’s independence and well-being, can’t be overstated. But there are broader lessons as well: people care about and make active choices about their health and reproductive strategies, in huge numbers, and with surprising subtlety. The economy, demographics, and availability of equitable access to social opportunities such as jobs, education, and employment, have powerful consequences for how people live their lives and use their bodies – and the choices they make in response to circumstances demonstrate that the choices others make under other circumstances are not always free or welcome.

Map of countries by fertility rate

Average Fertility by Country

Given a chance, most women in developed countries around the world will choose to have 3 or fewer – often 2 or fewer – children in their lifetimes, and the rate drops predictably with improving conditions. Most women in non-developed countries, and even in affluent ones before the development of effective and available birth control, had many more (in most of central Africa today, it is an average of 5 – 8 liveborn children per woman, and even more total pregnancies including stillbirths; in Afghanistan it is 7). Clearly those choices were not voluntary for most of those women. They were not voluntary for most women in America less than 100 years – just a few generations – ago. Increased economic affluence and urbanization made having fewer children more desirable, but it was the development and availability of modern birth control that made it possible. To remove that access for some of the population now is not merely to endorse certain lifestyle choices or even to make them possible (women have always been perfectly free to have 4 or more children if they choose); it is to eliminate the choices others might make if they could, and constrain them by economic force to a life most of the country, and most of the world, has chosen to flee. It is to return some of the women of America to the conditions of life of 100 years ago, while the affluent continue the path to greater opportunity that was made possible by the economic and medical advances over that time.

March 30, 2011

Familiar Disinformation Assault on Planned Parenthood Now Building

by @ 3:15 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

Right-wing sites are loudly touting yet another of their doctored videos and deceptive recordings to vilify Planned Parenthood – this time with an accusation so blatantly misconceived it hardly makes sense.

The anti-choice “Live-Action Blog” has prominently posted a short video clip of Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards explaining the impact of the GOP proposal to gut all Title X (federal reproductive healthcare) funding as well as any funds specifically for treatment at Planned Parenthood clinics. (This is the budget amendment to “defund Planned Parenthood” that has been much talked-about, but it is important to note that it kills all Title X funding entirely, as well as any other treatments at PP specifically from all other funding sources). As Richards notes, entirely correctly:

What’s gonna happen, if this bill becomes law, millions of women in this country are going to lose their healthcare access, not to abortion services, [but] to basic family planning, mammograms . . .

I don’t know what else she said, because they cut that off. The clip just repeats the word “mammograms, mammograms, mammograms” over and over – as if they’ve broken some kind of scandal in proving that the head of a women’s health service would be concerned with access to a basic and universally recommended women’s healthcare procedure.

The clip then goes on to include secretly-recorded conversations at a couple of dozen PP clinics in which . . . another scandal! . . . the receptionist confirms that Planned Parenthood doesn’t provide mammograms, but offers to refer the deceptive “patient” to a facility that does. They’ll even help you get an appointment and fill out the paperwork for a subsidy for the cost. This, the wingnut blogs are breathlessly screaming, is a immense “scam”.

So, these anti-choice “activists” have broken a really big expose of Planned Parenthood, right? (OK – if you couldn’t have guessed the answer to that without even reading the story, you haven’t been paying attention.)

They certainly think they have, or at least claim so: Live-Action blares “Planned Parenthood CEO’s False Mammogram Claim Exposed”; Left Coast Rebel claims that “Cecile Richard’s, CEO of Planned Parenthood, lied and did more to limit access to mammograms than defunding” (the latter part appears to be some convoluted argument that PP is actually denying women mammograms by referring them to facilities that provide mammograms – this is right-wing thinking on healthcare); the always-wrong Erick Erickson repeats that claim, asking “Does Supporting Planned Parenthood Increase The Risk of Breast Cancer?” (um, no – it increase your probability of being referred for a mammogram, at an appropriate facility); David Brody calls this “The Mammogram Scam”. And there’s more. Around the blogosphere, yet another coordinated Planned Parenthood “sting” is taking place, broadcasting false and just bizarrely distorted secret and misleadingly-edited tapes that mean almost the opposite of what they are twisted to say.

You have to ask: are the media going to fall for it again? Time after time, these false tapes have been dutifully repeated in the news without the slightest critical inspection (one of them was the reason for the “defund Planned Parenthood” bill – now another equally false one just happens to pop up claiming that the impact of that bill is actually evidence of a financial ripoff by Planned Parenthood itself). We can only hope this persistent and organized campaign of distortion and outright dishonesty will be recognized this time. (The Washington Post already failed.)

Let me make one point about this ridiculous “denying care” argument, before pointing out what the tape actually did say. Planned Parenthood clinics do not provide mammograms on-site; they do make referrals of patients requesting (or who have been recommended to receive) mammograms to other facilities that provide them. In some cases of these fake patients requesting them over the phone, they wound up having to call a couple of numbers to find a place where they could get a procedure that that Planned Parenthood clinic does not provide. The argument here is that it is apparently Planned Parenthood’s fault they didn’t provide instant access to a procedure a random caller requested from a facility that doesn’t offer it. On-site, some of these clinics (depending on the clinic and the state) apparently can help patients get mammograms elsewhere by providing referrals and forms to request funding from a state program that also subsidizes those procedures. The argument about this is apparently that PP is taking federal funding for mammogram services and using it merely to shunt patients off to some other facility where the procedure is funded some other way. This is nonsense in both cases, obviously. Every medical facility of every kind has a specific range of services it provides, and will refer patients to other facilities for other procedures; the fact that a given clinic does not have a specialized and expensive facility on-site, that only some of its patients need, and which requires a dedicated technician to operate, is hardly surprising and in no way unusual. As for Title X, it does provide funding for mammograms among many other things, and PP does get funding for some services under Title X, but obviously that funding is not for particular services they don’t provide, it is for the services they do provide. PP clinics do not get any funding for mammograms; what they get is Title X funding for the many other services that can be provided in an OB-GYN clinic, and which they do provide. In many cases they cooperate with cancer screening programs run by other facilities, including well-respected groups such as the Susan Komen Fund. There is no wasting of Title X funds on patients who get mammograms from X-ray facilities outside PP offices; and no denial or delay of care – if anything, the patients get mammograms faster and more readily, thanks to PP, because PP provides them with access to internists or OB-GYNs who recommend such screenings and provide referrals for them – exactly the services that the GOP is trying to kill off.

As to what the tape actually does show: Richards doesn’t say that Planned Parenthood provides mammograms; she doesn’t even mention Planned Parenthood in the edited clip they show. PP clinics do not provide mammograms for a very good reason: a mammogram, while routine, is a specialized radiological procedure that requires an X-ray suite and a trained technician. Most OB-GYN clinics don’t have an X-ray suite. They send women to X-ray facilities for that. (Your doctor doesn’t have a medical lab, either – they send your blood and urine to a specialized facility and get the results back by computer. This is standard.)

What Richards does say, correctly, is that the GOP cuts to women’s healthcare will prevent vast numbers of women from getting basic care, including mammograms, from many sources or providers. The GOP proposal cuts all funding for Title X, which does fund mammograms (at X-ray facilities, not gynecological clinics, because mammograms involve X-rays, therefore they’re done at X-ray facilities . . . am I going too fast for you, right-wingers?), and will have a considerable impact on the availability of mammograms, as well as other forms of care, for women nationwide.

Richards was pointing out the impact of this vicious bill on women’s healthcare across the board, not just in respect of her own organization, and she did so honestly and perfectly correctly. The anti-woman contingent couldn’t be bothered to understand what she was saying, or provide the context of the question she was answering, or even the full sentence in which she answered it, before whipping up another howling storm of falsehood and deception.

[UPDATE: Title X funds "breast and cervical cancer screening according to nationally recognized standards of care", which in practice means manual breast exams for individual patients during office visits, and referral for mammograms for patients with a positive manual screen. It does not appear to fund routine mammograms, though their Web site is so vague it is hard to tell exactly how it works.]

“Appropriate” Treatments: Categorical, or Situational?

by @ 1:32 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Disability Issues, General, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Theory

There’s a provocative post over at the excellent KevinMD Web site:

Overeating is a behavioral problem, not a surgical one

This may seem to be a statement of the obvious, but the solution to a behavioral problem is not surgery. Overeating is not a surgical problem — it is a behavioral one. The problem is not because the stomach is too big and needs to be made smaller. It is a function of how much food is put into the stomach. Surgical “solutions” should be the absolute last resort measure.

The letter – from an Australian physician who touts himself on the Web as a “DIY health” guru – goes on to make a number of good points about bariatric surgery (mostly stomach-banding), couched in terms of clinical efficacy and relative risk: it does not work for everyone; the campaign to expand the qualifying criteria may include patients who have marginal need or expected benefit; there are known side effects and long-term safety is unknown; the promoters are compromised by conflicts of interest. These are all relevant considerations. But the overall tone in the letter, and even more so the comments, is both judgmental and dismissive. (From commenters: “People are obese simply because of their own behavioral inability to control their diet . . . the solution still lies FIRST in the individual admitting his/her 100% responsibility in the problem weight.” “Obesity results solely from laziness and apathy, which consequently are the same traits that are leading to the devolution of our species.”)

The giveaway here is the headline: yes, overeating is of course a “behavioral problem”, not a surgical one, because in this context “behavioral problem” clearly refers to the etiology of a pathological condition (obesity), while “surgical [problem]” clearly refers to the preferred mode of treatment for that condition. The writer conflates the two categories, and then draws an inference from a logical contradiction of his own making: it’s true that the  etiology of this condition is not its treatment, but that’s true in every case, so that hardly tells against that treatment considered in and of itself. We can reinterpret the sentence to make sense, but only by making it obviously absurd: either “Overeating is a behavioral treatment, not a surgical treatment” or “Overeating, not surgery, is the cause of obesity”. There is a vacuity of clinical concepts here that suggests something else is at work in the writer’s animosity to certain kinds of treatments.

What the writer is really trying to say is this: “Obesity is caused by behavior, and should not be treated by surgery”. And the logical implication of that statement, and the letter and comments that follow, is this: “Obesity is caused by behavior, and therefore should not be treated by surgery”. The clinical counter-indications for surgery (and medical treatments for obesity – he’s against pills, too) that the writer details do not really seem to be the issue in his mind. Instead, certain treatments are ruled in or out categorically, on the basis of criteria of appropriateness that seem to hinge on his view of what health and medicine are fundamentally about, or how they are fundamentally related. There is a sense that diet is better than medical treatment because it is lower-risk, but also a sense that people who brought their conditions upon themselves behaviorally should be expected to work out their own salvation without clinical intervention. There is a clear implication that the writer would still object to bariatric surgery even if it were safer and more effective, simply because it’s not the kind of treatment he thinks this condition should get, in some essential sense (“obvious[ly] . . . the solution to a behavioral problem is not surgery”). Because the condition is behavioral, the treatment should be behavioral: QED.

From this perspective, the choice of treatments for a given condition depends on some sort of criteria of categorical appropriateness – a determination of what kinds of treatments are appropriate to any given condition, only after which do questions of safety and efficacy come into play. (This becomes more obvious in the letter above when the writer airily dismisses the notorious psychological difficulties of dieting with remarks about “responsibility for one’s actions”.) And this is the question that really got my attention about this issue. The concept of “appropriate” treatment is one that gets to the heart of healthcare as a practice, and of the ethical dimensions of such seemingly scientific concepts as the definition of disease, relative risk, and clinical indications for treatment.

To define clinical indications in some way other than in terms of clinical efficacy establishes medicine as a categorically defined practice: a praxis incorporating certain beliefs or techniques that are “just right”, and eschewing others as “just wrong”. The old ethic of “doctor knows best” exemplifies this idea to some extent (in regard of the roles of patient and physician: the doctor prescribes; the patient complies). More broadly, medical ethics based on a perception of distinctly medical virtues and traditions (Pellegrino’s “internal ethic of medicine”) makes all of medicine categorical; more than that, it moves the locus of medical ethics entirely inside the profession, such that what is right or wrong for a given patient is what is or is not in keeping with the behavioral standards applicable to the doctor. Even more modern theories of medical ethics do the same to the extent that they perceive specific types of treatments as right or wrong in and of themselves.

The movement toward patient autonomy and patient-centered care challenges this ethos at a basic level: the whole idea that patients may determine their own interests for themselves necessarily implies that healthcare is defined as serving those interests (or else we get a macabre dissociation between what patients need and what healthcare is for). The patient-centered ethic has fundamentally reformed healthcare practice in many areas, most notably refusal and termination of unwanted treatments, and more indirectly through the rise of cosmetic, nutritional, sports- or adventure-oriented, assisted reproductive, and other forms of “aspirational” (rather than pathology-driven) healthcare. The idea that what patients need is not determined by the pursuit and maintenance of “normal species functioning” – never exceeding its bounds and normal range, either positively or negatively – throws open a potentially unlimited range of possible treatments for any given condition, and indeed a potentially unlimited range of praxis under any conditions, whether or not defined in terms of disease and treatment. (The body modification movement blows the doors off the disease/treatment model, and increasingly off of any old-fashioned notions of normal species functioning.)

From this perspective, it is impossible even to formulate a declaration of the form: Because the condition is ________, the treatment should be ________. Radically patient-centered care does not require a “condition” to authorize a “treatment”, and takes it as fundamental that some patients may deny that an otherwise-recognized “condition” even exists (as in the case of the “fat acceptance” movement), while others may perceive, personally, a pathology in what would previously have been perceived categorically as normal (as with gender identity disorder). In addition, the particular best treatment for any given patient, whatever their circumstances, will be the one that best meets that patient’s interests as they themselves understand them – which may well be a riskier surgical procedure rather than a more burdensome lifestyle change, or vice versa, as they themselves perceive is best for them.

The significance of this non-categorical, patient-centered, situationally-responsive understanding of healthcare praxis is enormous. Aside from the overt impact on practical healthcare that the patient-autonomy movement continues to have, embracing a truly patient-centered ethic of care guides thinking about how to understand patient needs and how to meet them. In particular, it rules out categorical thinking of the type that prohibits providing certain treatments (with due consideration of cost, risk, and expected benefit) for a given patient or category of patient because they do not conform to some generic standard of appropriateness, and it requires that the patient’s own understanding of their goals, priorities, and risk-tolerance, be the determinative factors. Clearly the message hasn’t reached all corners yet.

March 24, 2011

Not Waiting to Exhale

by @ 2:24 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, General Science, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Women's Issues

Here’s an interesting peer-to-peer phone-line support service for women who have had an abortion and want to talk to other women about it.

Exhale serves women who have abortions, and their partners, friends and family. We respect the cultural, social and religious beliefs of all our callers.

Apparently they’ve been in operation for about 8 years, and claim to have taken close to 20,000 calls; I’m embarrassed to say I’d never heard of them before. Their Web site makes them sound like a neutral listening post for those who want to talk about their experiences and feelings about them, regardless of what those feelings might be or what the caller’s perspective on the whole issue is. I have no direct experience with this group, so I can’t say how accurate this is or how well it works, but the Web site seems to me like it takes just the right tone:

  • Exhale views each individual as a “whole person,” respects their belief system and strives for cultural competency.
  • Exhale believes that self-awareness, self-care, and knowledge can empower individuals.
  • Exhale seeks to transform oppression by challenging its roots and empowering each other and our communities.
  • Exhale values the spirit of collaboration.
  • Exhale believes abortion can be a normal part of the reproductive lives of women and girls.

The problem, of course, is that the entire notion of abortion “counseling” is generally a deception perpetrated by anti-choice groups to trick women into being manipulated with slut-shaming and false information. That makes me leery of any group – however honest and above-board – that sets itself up to provide such counseling. And, given the documented fact that abortion is not uniquely associated with psychological trauma, and since we don’t normally set up support groups for every individual outpatient surgical procedure (“Expel seeks to transform colonoscopy . . .”), the implication that there needs to be one for abortion specifically also smacks – just a bit, perhaps – of a negative, or at least defensive, stance toward abortion in general. But their Web site specifically disclaims this, and, without direct knowledge, I’m willing to take them at their word.

It is valid to recognize that abortion can be an emotionally fraught experience. While it is an important, useful, and sometimes life-saving procedure, abortion is unusual (though hardly unique) in that it is a treatment for a condition that is often regarded as actually desirable, and that most women, including most women who have abortions, will seek voluntarily at some point in their lives. There is no contradiction in the fact that pregnancy can be wanted under some circumstances and unwanted under others, and it makes only the most obvious kind of sense that there should be treatments available for those cases in which it is unwanted, and that many women will want “an abortive remedy” when that serves their needs and interests under their particular circumstances. But it is understandable, too, that an unwanted pregnancy may call up thoughts about pregnancies they patient may want or embrace under other circumstances, and that a particular pregnancy may be unwanted due to immediate circumstances that the patient wishes she could change, and would be wanted under those changed circumstances. So it’s easily understandable that some women’s feelings about their abortions would be complex, even while they are firm in their conviction that having one is/was right under the circumstances at the time.

Given the virulent campaign to make women feel guilty for making their own decisions about pregnancy, and to use that manufactured shame and guilt as a tool to keep them from doing so, even admitting that women may have conflicted feelings about abortion, or indeed that it is possible to be conflicted about one’s decisions without that fact undermining the right to make one’s own decisions at all, is the kind of frank discussion of fact that becomes so dangerous in the face of organized campaigns of falsehood that consistently distort facts to attack women’s independence. But an honest discussion of abortion, and honest, respectful, and welcoming acknowledgment of the women who have abortions, requires treating simple facts in a true and honest way. It in no way undermines the pro-choice principle – even if it will be used as a dishonest political attack – t0 say that women may have complicated feelings about pregnancy and abortion and may want to talk about them, and it serves those women more fully and respectfully to address that need openly and provide a tool for meeting it.

One bit of the Exhale Web site took me aback, and then left me even more impressed with their apparent devotion to honest and value-neutral service to women. They say:

If you have been diagnosed, or have self-diagnosed, as having Post-Abortion Stress Syndrome, Exhale understands that having a name for what you’re feeling and experiencing can feel important.  Many women find the experience of identifying with this syndrome as positive and affirming.  It is also important to know that having feelings about a significant life event doesn’t mean that you have a major psychological condition that requires medical care.  For many women, naming and expressing their emotions, and having the space and support to do so, can be more empowering than being identified as having a disorder.  Whether or not you think you have PASS, the most important thing is that you get support for what you’re feeling, not what someone else thinks you should be feeling.  Exhale trusts you to know what feels right for yourself.

Exhale follows the findings of the American Psychological Association, which has not found a link between feelings that follow an abortion and a psychological condition in need of medical care.

This is startling, but strikes me as exactly right. “Post-Abortion Syndrome” is a wholly imaginary and deeply dishonest “diagnosis” invented out of whole cloth by anti-choicers. It exists (actually, is claimed to “exist”) only to discredit abortion – a procedure that serves women’s health and autonomy interests in a centrally vital way, and is actually safer than childbirth in almost all cases – as somehow pathological, in open defiance of established data (yet another example of a tactic that is pervasive on the right wing). The campaign to tout this fraudulent “syndrome” as a real condition has misled many women, often the youngest and most vulnerable among them; this is not just a travesty of medical science but an assault on women and their freedom. But the fact that some women have been conned into worrying about this fake disease, or mistaking their own natural complexity of feelings, or even regret, for some sort of illness on their part, must be met sensitively and with respect for the women who have those feelings, and the feelings they have.

It is unconscionable to participate in or endorse the deceptions the misogynist right practices against women and women’s independence, but it is vital to meet those women themselves, where they are and as they are feeling, and to validate their own perceptions of their situations and help them deal with them on their own terms. Exhale seems to walk this line bravely (given how easily such a stance can be misconstrued and used against them) and sensitively (given the difficulty of managing such a delicate distinction).

From what I see here – and again, I have no direct knowledge – the group hits the nail right on the head, in terms of acknowledging the range of women’s experiences and prioritizing their own perspectives on their situations, without downplaying every woman’s right to make her own decisions about reproductive health. (Including family and friends, including men, in their services is also a sign of a sensitive and realistically broad approach.) Healthcare has more and more come to recognize the importance of a wholistic approach to patients’ needs and experiences, including post-treatment support. In a field in which any admission of need is turned into yet another attack on women’s strength and claim to independence, simple decency and understanding can become a liability. By refusing to play those games, the approach that Exhale seems to embody returns the truly important issue – women’s need for service, support, acceptance, and respect – to the center of the abortion issue where it belongs.

I’d be interested in hearing what others think or have seen, regarding Exhale or similar services. Has anyone who is willing to discuss it here participated in such counseling, or served as a facilitator? How significant is this sort of support, and does it help?

UPDATE: Wow, am I a dumbass! Somehow I completely forgot about this organization, after I had previously blogged about it back when they were first starting up! Guess I should read my own blog more often.

Additionally, I have heard from well-respected sources that Exhale is legit – they will talk to anyone in a non-judgmental way, but are in no way anti-choice.

March 23, 2011

Conservatives on Healthcare: Wanting it NotBoth Ways

by @ 5:08 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics

QOTD:

Conservative politicians often seem to me to be in [a] web of contradiction. On the one hand, they laud the consequences of generous public subsidies for the consumption of health care services and darkly warn of the perils of rationing. Then on the other hand, they insist that the projected rate of increase in government health care spending is far too high. Which is it?

- Matt Yglesias

Yes – and add to that the simply dishonest obliviousness to market-based rationing that makes the US healthcare system worst among developed nations in total-population average outcomes for many aspects of care, and the weird categorical thinking that makes government-paid care somehow bad or immoral and private-paid care good or virtuous, for exactly the same care from the same providers, and you have an entire political wing that is simply cognitively incompetent to make policy decisions.

A phenomenon that is not restricted to healthcare, it might also be noted.

March 18, 2011

The Drill (Divide & Conquer on Reproductive Rights)

by @ 11:58 AM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Healthcare Politics, Reproductive Ethics, Women's Issues

From Comrade DougJ at Balloon Juice, this says it perfectly:

You know the drill on the politics of reproductive rights: most voters support a woman’s right to choose, but those who oppose it are much more likely to be one issue voters. Most anti-choice legislation focuses on fucking with poor people who vote Democrat anyway, so as not to alienate more middle-class and upper-class women (who are often strongly pro-choice but sometimes vote Republican anyway). I have to wonder at what point all this bullshit turns a lot of middle-class and upper-class women into single issue pro-choice voters. All this crap will stop as soon as that happens, but it will continue unabated until it does.

The key point is that the right wing hates upper-class women as much as they do lower class women (though for fewer reasons: they’re not poor, and more likely to be white, so that eliminates certain causes of the antagonism, but not its strength). Because of the class divide, the assault on women has less effect on the upper class, but the motivation is still there. When upper-class women begin to feel it, they’ll respond. (And in that regard, the move to eliminate tax deductions for all and only health plans that cover abortion may be welcome prod, as DougJ notes in the above-linked post.)

Sadly, solidarity begins when suffering is shared, not when it is merely noted. But GOP overreach makes that almost inevitable.

March 14, 2011

More Ghoulish Posturing in a Vegetative-State Case

by @ 4:03 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, Disability Issues, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles

The “Baby Joseph” case has been making the rounds of the right-wing press for some time, and is now in the mainstream press due to a confluence of right-wing hype and a predictably distorted Canada-vs.-US angle. As always, bad cases make good press releases, and rational standards of care suffer.

(more…)

October 1, 2010

“Duh” Headline of the Day: Patients Without Doctors Will Need Doctors

by @ 2:05 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles

The Association of American Medical Colleges released a report yesterday that reaches a fairly obvious conclusion: increased healthcare coverage through Obamacare and the Baby Boomers’ entering Medicare will result in an increased demand for physician services, and thus worsen the current imbalance between providers and patients.

The U.S. healthcare reform law will worsen a shortage of physicians as millions of newly insured patients seek care, the Association of American Medical Colleges said on Thursday.

The group’s Center for Workforce Studies released new estimates that showed shortages would be 50 percent worse in 2015 than forecast.

“While previous projections showed a baseline shortage of 39,600 doctors in 2015, current estimates bring that number closer to 63,000, with a worsening of shortages through 2025,” the group said in a statement.

“The United States already was struggling with a critical physician shortage and the problem will only be exacerbated as 32 million Americans acquire health care coverage, and an additional 36 million people enter Medicare.”

To their credit, they are not positioning this as a criticism of the increase in access to healthcare, rather as an indication of the need for more trained physicians. But Reuters of course found a way to point blame (“Health reform to worsen doctor shortage”), and already the wingnut blogs are piling on.

Hot Air:

the [healthcare reform] bill will have a big impact on an expected shortage of physicians over the next few years — by amplifying it . . . The artificial cap on reimbursements — a form of price-fixing — will be the main culprit.

Note of course that the actual press release explicitly cites the relative projected growth of the patient and physician populations – a straightforward mathematical ratio – and says nothing at all about reimbursement caps; it also cites both Medicare eligibility – a demographic phenomenon – and the health bill as the sources of that growth. (And, of course, the bill does not specify a global cap on reimbursments, contractual provider payment maximums are not “price fixing”, and the for-profit insurance industry universally specifies maximum reimbursements in its contracts already. But mere conceptual confusion and knee-jerk wrongheadedness are only the ordinary level of stupidity at that blog. And Conservative Reading Comprehension Disorder, of course, rages on.)

This projected shift in provider/patient ratios is an obvious – and remediable – result of providing more access to healthcare to tens of millions of people who now have little or none. Of course there’s going to be more demand for doctors if a bunch of people who don’t have access to one suddenly have a means of getting access. What is striking is that the right sees this as a reason not to provide that access.

The implicit – and at times explicit – conclusion drawn from the fact that more patients means a need for more doctors is that we should not provide access for more patients. The right’s actual, quite literal, reaction to the possibility that they might have to wait longer to see their doctors is to keep other people from seeing doctors, reducing the size of the patient pool rather than increasing the size of the provider pool, literally demanding that others should suffer for the right’s personal convenience. It staggers me that these nasty creeps are even listened to, let alone taken in any way seriously, on healthcare or any subject that touches people’s vital needs.

September 23, 2010

Republican Anti-Choice Assholes Reduce General Healthcare Availability . . . Again

by @ 12:51 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

Today the wingers are hugging themselves over the fact that the New Jersey state legislature failed to override Gov. Christie’s veto of family-planning funding for low-income women in that state. The funding reduction particularly targets services provided by Planned Parenthood – the nation’s largest single non-governmental provider of reproductive healthcare to the poor. Naturally, this was trumpeted as an attack on “Planned Parenthood’s abortion business” – a claim as false as it is stupid. Not only were the funds in question earmarked for services that have nothing to do with abortion, but they provide no indirect support of abortion, and the clinic that was affected does not provide abortions! What the Republicans did manage to do was shut down basic and necessary reproductive healthcare services – of virtually all kinds except abortion – for thousands of low-income patients, while crowing about their non-existent and deliberately disengenuous anti-choice “coup”.

First, Planned Parenthood does not have an “abortion business”. (They’re a non-profit – they aren’t a business at all.) Abortions (just 3% of PP’s annual clinical visits, nationwide) are provided by PP at rates generally below cost – they are subsidized by donations. (This – and their non-profit status – defeats the lie that PP is making a “profit” on abortion services.) Funding for other services is also heavily subsidized, and also in part paid for under government aid programs for healthcare for low-income people – typically Medicaid or SCHIP. That is, low-income patients who qualify for subsidized care can get that care at PP – while many for-profit providers simply refuse to take such patients at all – and PP is reimbursed, just like any clinic, under the appropriate plan. Those fees pay only for the services rendered, at the government-mandated rates, which are so low that, again, most mainstream providers simply refuse to accept them or the patients that are thereby covered. PP makes up the difference from its donation revenue – the government payments are so low they not only do not fund other PP activities, they don’t even fund the activities they nominally are supposed to pay for. (This defeats the lie that low-income healthcare reimbursement subsidizes abortion services.)

All this can easily be verified by looking at PP’s publicly-posted annual reports, which clearly show that a large portion of its clinical costs are subsidized by donations (24% of all revenue, in 2007) - no source of fee income for clinical services, whether abortion-related or not, government or private, is sufficient to actually pay for those services; all such fee income is used up in costs of the care itself, and then some.

But beyond this, the actual effect of the funding cut, as mentioned above, is to force closure of a clinic that did not provide abortions. The entire dishonest grandstanding really targeted ordinary healthcare and reproductive health services for low-income patients, largely women but some men. It had nothing – financially, practically, or even geographically – to do with Planned Parenthood’s abortion services, or the availability of abortion in New Jersey in general. But anti-choice ideology was a convenient stalking horse for the GOP’s anti-woman, anti-healthcare, anti-sex hatred, and it worked perfectly in this case.

What Planned Parenthood of Southern New Jersey actually does do – and which is no longer available from the clinic that is shutting down – includes, among other things:

Women’s Reproductive Healthcare:

  • All methods of contraception, prescriptive and non-prescriptive
  • Complete GYN physical exam
  • Treatment for many GYN problems
  • Laboratory screening
  • Cancer screening (Pap test, breast self exam)
  • Testing and treatment for Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)
  • Emergency Contraception
  • Colposcopy & cryotherapy
  • Pregnancy testing & counseling
  • Pre-Natal Care
  • Gardasil  (HPV vaccine) 
  • HIV testing & counseling
  • Hepatitis B vaccine
  • Vasectomy

And:

Male Services (25 and under)

  • Condoms / Contraceptive Education
  • Sexually Transmitted Infection (STI) screening & treatment
  • HIV Testing & Counseling
  • Health Screening

And:

Pre-natal care plays an important role in providing a comprehensive package of medical and health support services for the pregnant woman. Pre-natal care promotes optimum health, prevents disease and provides a mechanism to manage potential problems and can have a long lasting positive effect upon the family. At PPSNJ, we provide the following pre-natal services: 

  • Medical exams
  • Laboratory services
  • WIC Program
  • Pregnancy support and education
  • Nutrition education
  • Adolescent parenting support groups
  • Delivery at Cooper University Hospital or other referral

And:

[C]omprehensive, age appropriate sexuality education and training for pre-adolescents, teens, families, schools, community groups, faith-based settings, other social service organizations and healthcare providers. 

  • Workshops and Professional Training
  • Speakers and classroom presentations
  • Curriculum Development
  • Teen Programs
  • Fathers Group

None of that is available now, at one of their primary locations, thanks to the “pro-life” assholes of the Republican party. Their ideology is made clear by the fact that the elimination of this funding not only has no affect on the funding of abortions (see above), but in fact directly impacts a clinic that does not even provide abortions. What it does eliminate is a local source of low-cost healthcare for the financially needy population, most of it focused on reproductive health and pre-natal services. That was their target, and that was their effect. The abortion nonsense – aside from being an outright lie – was a red herring.

The GOP hates women, hates the poor, and hates people who make their own decisions about sex and reproduction. Today they’ve eliminated healthcare for thousands of them, while having absolutely no impact on abortion, although banking on and claiming a political payoff for anti-choice ideology as a means to that end.

More of their standard, repulsive, dishonest and hateful same.

August 6, 2010

Gay Marriage and Abortion Rights: Parallels?

by @ 4:09 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Global/Community Health, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Women's Issues

The recent federal-court decision invalidating California’s ban on gay marriages was of course welcome and long overdue. And there’s a lot of commentary from across the political spectrum predicting that it will be upheld at the Supreme Court level, given Justice Kennedy’s authorship of both major recent groundbreaking decisions favoring equality for gays (Romer, invalidating an exception to equal-rights statutes in the case of gays, and Lawrence, invalidating the criminalization of gay sex), and his status as inevitable swing vote on discrimination issues. So – while nothing is yet assured – this is a watershed, and very hopeful, moment for the cause of equality.

The question it raises, however, is what kind of backlash this will trigger. One likely possibility is an attempt to push through a Constitutional amendment imposing discrimination nationwide. Although that possibility concerned me greatly, I am – with fingers crossed – hopeful that such a movement would be unavailing. By the time any such plan could gain traction, there will have been several years’ worth of experience with gay marriage, and increasing experience of life under a national-level Supreme Court decision for equality, tending to reduce the panic over the supposed consequences of gay marriages. The political winds have shifted, also; it’s true that the GOP is somewhat resurgent, but the grounds for debate are now dominated by economic issues, and the religious-right/teabag movement is proving more and more of a liability for the GOP. I suspect the homophobic firestorm the GOP deliberately stoked in 1996, which created gay marriage as a political issue for their base, will not be possible in 2012. And, too, Constitutional amendments over controversial issues are hard to pass, and this one is unlikely to have enough momentum to overcome the inevitable decline of the homophobic movement as the reality of gay marriage proves their crazy ranting is just pointless. So I suspect there will be an attempt to pass the first-ever Constitutional amendment creating a new form of discrimination, but it will fizzle out.

However, I just read speculation elsewhere that gay marriage will become “another Roe v. Wade” – that is, a cultural flashpoint issue that will polarize society and give the right wing something to agitate about forever. That is no reason to oppose equality, of course, but it is a daunting prospect nonetheless. And that commenter was surely right that the (presumptive) institution of equality by the Supreme Court, and the failure of legislative or Constitutional processes to maintain discrimination, will energize the right wing and serve as a focus of grievance for them for the forseeable future. And yet, as I think about it, it occurs to me that this outcome may not be as destructive as it would seem, and could even have an upside. I suspect that the wingnuts will indeed agitate interminably over gay equality, and this will have two consequences: (1) it will further marginalize the religious right, and (2) it could conceivably bolster support for abortion rights as well.

The argument for the first possibility above is obvious. As gay marriages become more and more commonplace, and as disinformation about priests being forced to perform gay marriages, or children being “indoctrinated” in schools, are disproven by everyday experience, the disingenuous fearmongering that drives the hate movement will be undermined. The haters will simply serve to highlight the unhinged and bigoted streak that infects the Republican party and, as Sarah Palin is quickly becoming, and Sharron Angle already has become, will be an albatross around the neck that the GOP will eventually be glad to be rid of.

The argument toward a pro-autonomy rebound is less intuitive, but not implausible, I think. The idea that gay marriage will galvanize conservatives like abortion did is likely true. The parallels between the issues are strong: each is a cause celebre’ for the religious right, grounded on religious visions of morality, driven by a deep-seated revulsion to sex, and centering on a despised group whose claims to equality and autonomy the religious right hates and resents.  And the campaigns waged by the right against autonomy and self-determination in both cases are again similar: bizarre predictions of the consequences of allowing people to make their own decisions, Biblical injunctions against equality and non-patriarchal sex, deliberate lies and disinformation about the implications of freedom in each case, hateful moralistic judgmentalism, simply deluded scientific disinformation, and a manipulative pretended concern “for the children”, all of it as grossly distorted and dishonest as it is possible to be. As wingnut hot-button issues, they do have much in common.

It is that close parallel that, I think, spells (indirect, and uncertain) good news for the pro-choice position. The campaign against equality for gays is very similar to the campaign against self-determination for women. The basic idea at the bottom of both campaigns – that one particularly backward and restrictive religious view of how people should live their lives should be made mandatory for everyone, by law – is the same, and the attempt to regulate sexual behavior that they disapprove of is likewise a common central element in both campaigns. The gay-marriage controversy brings this to the fore because that issue is clearly solely driven by sex-based animus, but the same elements are at work in the abortion issue. And so, as the gay marriage controversy is exposed as the panicky, lunatic hatefest that it is, all other attempts to restrict the rights of autonomous adults to make their own decisions in areas reflecting on their sex lives will be simultaneously undercut. To the extent it becomes obvious that “gay marriage” is a wholly invented controversy based on ludicrous and bizarre apprehensions about other people’s sex lives, and the characterizations of its proponents and participants were absurdly false and fantastical, and its presence in the community is not a threat or a curse, and the claims and predictions made about it were false and invented, it will become that much easier to see how those same distortions have driven the anti-choice campaign in the same ways. And, most of all, the more it becomes obvious that the anti-gay-marriage people are simply hateful and barely sane, and that their movement is a product of their religiously-inspired reactionism, and that they are the same people who are driving the anti-choice campaign, the true nature of that project will become more obvious as well.

The bottom line is, letting the wingnuts discredit themselves over gay marriage can only work to the advantage of the pro-choice community (and related progressive movements). It will be an ugly and hateful process, but a necessary cleansing, and possibly a road to a better day in the future.

June 30, 2010

Kagan Trifecta: Conservative Reading Comprehension Disorder, Utter Mendacity, and the Noise Machine

by @ 12:31 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Healthcare Politics, Medical Science, Provider Roles, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Theory, Women's Issues

There’s a lot of blogging today over a sensationalistic post at NRO by Shannen Coffin, a former Bush lawyer who was responsible for anti-choice litigation surrounding the so-called “partial birth” abortion ban. She He notes a 1996 memo from the files of the Clinton administration, predating Clinton’s veto of the anti-choice bill, in which Elena Kagan, then a Clinton legal advisor, recommended a change in language in the policy statement eventually issued by the American College of Gynecologists supporting their opposition to the bill. They originally stated that “in the vast majority of cases, selection of the partial birth procedure is not necessary to avert serious adverse consequences to a woman’s health”, and that they “could identify no circumstances under which intact D&X would be the only option to save the life or preserve the health of the woman”, but – on Kagan’s recommendation – clarified that by also noting that it “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman”. (Note that ACOG explicitly reaffirmed this policy, using the same language, at least three more times, in 1997, 2000, and 2003). That policy statement was later referred to by at least one federal judge, in litigation on the constitutionality of the ban later enacted by Bush.

Quelle horreur!

Coffin’s conclusions are that this is a “distortion of science”, that “language purporting to be the judgment of an independent body of medical experts devoted to the care and treatment of pregnant women and their children was, in the end, nothing more than the political scrawling of a White House appointee”, and that “Miss [sic] Kagan’s decision to override a scientific finding with her own calculated distortion in order to protect access to the most despicable of abortion procedures seriously twisted the judicial process” – naturally she he rolls this up into the ongoing Kagan Supreme Court confirmation hearings as well. The right-wing idiotocracy is all a-Twitter, too, natch: Powerline declares this is a “smoking gun” and “shocking”; Riehl calls it “misrepresenting science” and “dishonest”; the risible Betsy, of Betsy’s Page, reads this and concludes that “there was a doctors’ opinion that said that partial birth abortion was not necessary and she, with no medical background at all, drafted a statement that said the exact opposite”. Yuval Levin, the severely bioethics-challenged former staff manager of Bush’s Presidential Council on Bioethics, declares this to be a “war on science”, “astonishing”, and “easily the most serious and flagrant violation of the boundary between scientific expertise and politics I have ever encountered”.

This sort of nonsense is particularly astounding from Levin, who was a central player in the workings of an “ethics” commission that remains a watchword for right-wing distortion and duplicity, whose major policy statements drew dissenting opinions from its own most scientifically-qualified members, and which then censored, and later fired, those same members. Levin – a political scientist and former Bush White House policy staffmember who has spent his entire career crafting right-wing bioethics policy - also castigates Kagan for her lack of medical expertise and her involvement in healthcare policymaking. You really just can’t make this stuff up.

It’s especially disingenuous for people like Levin and Coffin – political hacks whose entire career consists of trying to influence policy to fit their ideological leanings, from both inside and outside the government – to claim that there’s something untoward in political policy staff conferring with the policy-making boards of professional organizations to shape language on statements issued in clearly political and legal contexts. That sort of thing goes on all the time, and it’s appropriate for such bodies of experts to confer with political authorities to ensure that their statements are effectively written and focused. It would be inappropriate for them to turn themselves over to the political authorities as tools of policy, and to issue statements they did not believe were true, but it’s not inappropriate to get guidance on language and emphasis in order to convey an effective message. (As Coffin herself notes, ACOG already opposed the anti-choice bill. Obviously they would want their policy statement to reflect the reasons why.) To suggest that a policy expert drafting language for a policy statement endorsed by a professional body is somehow scandalous – let alone unusual – is simply stupid. And to suggest, as Coffin and others have recklessly done, that ACOG is somehow compromised or tarnished in doing so, is not merely stupid and dishonest, but libelous.

Aside from the completely manufactured, and fictional, scandal that the right-wing noise machine is busily whipping up over this, there is also the simple fact that the language Kagan suggested does not replace or contradict the language previously present. The statement that there are “no circumstances under which intact D&X would be the only option” is entirely compatible with the claim that it “may be the best or most appropriate procedure in a particular circumstance to save the life or preserve the health of a woman” (emphases added). It’s simple, really: the fact that something is never the only option in no way means that it is a bad option; the revised language not only implicitly acknowledges this but clarifies for the dim-witted (i.e., conservatives) the even more important point that it is in fact sometimes the best option. (Obviously, Intact D&X is never the only option: you can always perform an unnecessary Cesearean section or force the woman to deliver a fetus that may be dying and may possibly kill her - options that are much prefereable, for conservatives, than allowing a woman to choose the safest option on her own authority. ACOG’s point, which Kagan nudged them towards, is that there are often better  options – and that women should have the right to choose them.)

The fight over Intact D&X was particularly nasty because it encapsulates so much of right-wing misogyny, so clearly: it was not a ban on abortion, and it was not a ban on late-term abortions; in fact, it did not ban any abortions under any circumstances. It was only and entirely a ban on one particular procedure for performing abortions. It banned the procedure that was preferable in specific circumstances – leaving abortions entirely legal under those circumstances but forcing women to submit to a procedure that was less safe and more debilitating for them. It was straightforwardly an attempt to punish women by making them accept higher risks and a lower standard of care, as the price for choosing a procedure the right wing disapproved. And ACOG’s policy statement implicitly recognized this: it notes that there are always alternatives to the ID&X procedure, but that in some circumstances those alternatives are worse, and ID&X is, in those circumstances, the best or most appropriate procedure. Kagan’s contribution – appropriate, useful, and highly pro-woman – was to encourage them to clarify that distinction. (Note, again, that ACOG explicitly reiterated this policy, and the important distinction it makes, three times after Kagan supposedly “overrode” their scientific judgment in the matter by forcing them to include language that does not contradict that judgment.)

Raising this issue is simply another example of the right-wing’s reflexive insanity over sex and abortion, coupled with their inherent inability to read and comprehend basic logical statements. (Note “Betsy”‘s analysis: “there was a doctors’ opinion that said that partial birth abortion was not necessary [no, there simply wasn't] and . . . [Kagan] drafted a statement that said the exact opposite” [no, she didn't].) Honestly, the relationship between “not the only” and “sometimes the best” is really not that tricky. It’s too tricky, of course, for the average right-winger, and for people like Coffin and Levin, whose deficiencies were all too apparent back when they were writing policy for Bush, but to people of normal intelligence and reading comprehension, this entire farce is an obviously groundless, and all-too-familiar, political hackery.

The right wing is also up in arms over this because, as Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns, & Money notes:

the only point of this feeble “smoking gun” is to allow Senate Republicans to mention the phrase “partial birth abortion” a lot [and] I should note once again that for reasons Judge Posner and Justice Stevens have explained the entire issue is a farce. The distinction between D&X abortions and other abortion procedures is wholly arbitrary, and for people who have supported irrational laws making such a distinction to pretend to care about rigorous medical science is nothing but comedy of the lowest form.

Mahablog was fast out of the blocks on this, in a post I wish I’d written:

if you actually understand the issue in question — which leaves out righties, naturally — you’d know there is no “there” there. . . . Somehow, in the fevered imagination of righties, a professional organization representing 90 percent of U.S. board-certified obstetrician-gynecologists was duped by Kagan into telling a lie, or something, and because this wording came from Kagan it must not actually reflect the views of ACOG. . . . no scientific finding was “overridden,” just clarified, and ACOG must have agreed with the statement or they wouldn’t have continued to repeat it in their position papers ever after.

Lemieux gets the content issue exactly right:

There’s no contradiction between the two drafts, because D&X abortions are, in fact, not medically necessary in a majority of cases. But this fact doesn’t mean that they are never medically necessary, and indeed the original statement implies that there are cases where D&X abortions are necessary or preferable for a protecting a woman’s health. Adding a statement to clarify what was implicit in the first draft doesn’t “distort” anything, and of course if ACOG didn’t think the statement was accurate Kagan had no power to get them to change it. There’s nothing here.

UPDATE: Corrected pronouns referring to Coffin; he’s a “he”, not a “she”. My apologies to Coffin for the mistake.

UPDATE: Another right-wing website breathlessly announces that Kagan “pressured a second group” on its wording of its pro-choice policy. That group was the AMA. Their claim: “Kagan discussed with other Clinton administration officials whether the AMA could reverse its policy saying there is not an identified situation in which partial-birth abortion is the only appropriate method of abortion. The AMA also noted ethical concerns with partial-birth abortions and said that it should not be used unless it is absolutely necessary.” Note that this repeats exactly the same mistake all the other commentators made about the first memo: the two positions described are not contradictory, and there is no “reversal” in evidence! And Kagan’s particular crime: she wrote an e-mail saying “We agreed to do a bit of thinking about whether we (in truth, HHS) could contribute to that effort . . . . Chuck and I are meeting with the AG on Tuesday; Donna offered to send over some doctors this week”. They don’t even identify who the e-mail was sent to (obviously it was internal), or whether any such meeting ever took place, let alone had any effect. (Apparently the AMA does the bidding of any government staff lawyer who offers to “contribute” to their policy development.) Truly, the stupid knows no bounds with these people.

April 2, 2010

“Do No Good”

by @ 1:53 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Provider Roles, Theory

Dr. Jack Cassell, in Florida, is getting press today for the cranky, obnoxious note he posted on his office door:

Dr. Jerk

The text reads: 

If you voted for Obama . . .
seek Urologic care
elswhere

Changes to your healthcare
begin right now
not in four years

He apparently also fills his waiting room with anti-Obama literature, signs about what “the morons in Washington have done to your healthcare” (NB: nothing has changed about any of his patients’ healthcare; he is the only one who has done anything so far), and explicit instructions on who they should vote for.

In response to concerns that he might be politicizing his care just a tad, he argues “I’m not turning anybody away — that would be unethical. But if they read the sign and turn the other way, so be it.” So of course he’s not actually doing anything to make patients feel uncomfortable by explicitly telling them to leave his practice because he disapproves of their politics; they just happen to choose to seek another doctor for reasons unrelated to his behavior or his treatment of them.

There’s been commentary over whether this infringes any laws or principles of medical ethics. His supporters claim he is justified in behaving this way because doctors, like everyone, have a right of free speech. There’s a lot to be said about that – most notably that the whole point to medical ethics is that professional practice and the professional relationship impose standards more stringent than those  incumbent on ordinary citizens. Simply having a right of free speech does not justify acting like a jerk toward your patients; the treatment relationship is one-sided, predicated upon the doctor’s commitment to service of the patients’ needs, not their approval of the patients’ politics; admission as a professional is predicated upon acceptance of those standards, and a willingness to put one’s personal inclinations aside in the professional arena.

But aside from that, what strikes me about this situation is the general attitude it reveals. Not only does this doctor fail in the face of any of the above standards, but it seems obvious he simply conceives of medical practice as something that does not in fact entail the authority of such standards or commitments. Doctoring is apparently a job, to him – something he can do if and as he chooses, and which does not impose on him any obligations he does not happen to want to meet. He is – to all appearances – essentially the doctor in Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, who joins with the amoral capitalist runaways to form a free-market society founded on hard money and ethical egoism. Being a doctor does not require him to do anything for anyone if he doesn’t feel like it, and it doesn’t require him to accept as a patient – or even keep as a patient anyone he has already accepted – who does not personally agree with him on any matter of his choosing.

What I fear, but perceive, is that this attitude is becoming more widespread. Doctoring is just a job, it seems, in the minds of more and more doctors, and in the minds of the right-wingers who are so afraid that Obama is going to destroy healthcare by making it less capitalist. (As usual, facts are of no moment to the right-wing panic apparatus: it is this doctor himself who is “changing” healthcare for his patients – his own sign says so  – but he still manages to blame it on Obama. And it is this doctor who has made healthcare hostile and unwelcoming for his own patients – he is, not a death panel exactly, but a one-man jerk panel to his personal caseload – but they deserve it, he seems to think, because they voted wrong.) Whatever the consequences of Obamacare, I fear that it will be simply impossible to destroy medicine in the US because there will be no medical profession left to destroy – just a bunch of entitled, self-absorbed jobsworths whining about how much less they like their jobs now that the glamor and remuneration has started to fade and they’re left with nothing more than providing better care to more people, which is such an imposition.

Democratic Congressmember Alan Grayson, who represents that district, was notorious for (accurately) characterizing the Republicans’ healthcare policy as “Die quickly”. He notes about Dr. Cassell: “Maybe he thinks the Hippocratic Oath says, ‘Do no good.’” That’s about the size of it.

January 13, 2010

How Can We Make It Clearer? When Will Anyone Notice?

by @ 4:33 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics

This is staggering:


Industrialized countries ranked by health expenditures vs. life expectancy - US is worst.

Health Expenditures vs. Life Expectancy


(See link for larger version.)

The graph is a ranking of industrialized countries by per-capita healthcare expenditures. The average figure is $2,986/year; Finland and Spain come in a little below that, and Australia and Sweden are a little above. Canada spends about $1,000 more per person per year than the major-nations average; free-wheeling Switzerland is about $1,400 above average.

See that lone, single red figure wa-a-a-a-a-y up in the left-hand corner? That’s the US. Our per-capita healthcare expenditures, at $7,290/year (!), are more than 240% of the average of all those nations together (actually, more than 260% of the average of all those nations other than the US, which comes to only $2,771/year if you leave the US out of it). And note that those expenditures, in the US, are for only 85% or less of the population; for every other country on the graph except Mexico, that figure covers every permanent resident of the country without exception.

Now look on the right-hand column: the same nations are ranked by average life expectancy. This is a crude, but still useful, indicator of what we’re getting for our healthcare costs. (Crude, because simple measures like sanitation and nutrition can contribute a great deal more to life expectancy than high-tech medical care. But the whole point is that better medical care produces longer and better lives, at the margin at least, and there is good evidence that this is true. So this is not a bad way to scale things out for quick and easy comprehension.) Implicitly, this graph establishes a relationship: assuming all things are equal, average healthcare expenditures should produce average life expectancies (which you could quantify as a numerical ratio, though that would be taking the thing rather too literally). In fact, that is almost exactly what the UK achieves ($2,992/year for about 79.1 years lifespan). About two-thirds of the countries on the list do better than that: their life expectancies, relative to average, are greater than would be expected given their healthcare costs relative to average. (This is indicated by the lines sloping up to the right on the graph. The slopes are not precisely indicative, because the right-side scale range does not match the left-side scale – the ranges should have been correllated better. But a positive or negative slope indicates an above- or below-average ratio, respectively.) A relatively small number of countries do worse.

Whether above or below average, the deviations tend to fall into a small range – note that most of the lines up, and down, are roughly parallel. All except one, of course: the US, as usual, is completely alone in its breathtakingly negative ratio of cost to life-expectancy benefit. That screaming red line plunging down the graph from off-the-charts high expenses to below-average benefits has no peer among any industrialized country: nowhere in the world does any country get such an incredibly below-average relative return for its healthcare expenses (and in fact below average in absolute terms compared to all other countries). The US, with per-capita healthcare expenses 260% highher than its peers, actually averages a total life expectancy almost 1.5% lower. (Only one other country, Denmark, manages to achieve above-average expenditures and below-average life expectancy; their expenditures are still less than half ours and their life expectancy is higher).

Note finally the width of the lines, which indicates average number of doctors’ visits provided per year by each country: the fat lines are 12 or more; the medium lines are 4 to 8; the US comes in at an average number of visits per year per person that rounds off most closely to . . . zero. (Note also that of the 4 countries that average effectively 0 visits per year, two of them are the only two on the graph that do not provide universal coverage.) Not only does every other country on this list except Mexico manage to provide universal healthcare coverage at vastly lower expense than the US, not only do 2/3 of them achieve greater life expectancies than the US, not only do 2/3 of them achieve an above-average ratio between relative expenditure and relative life expectancy, but over 80% of them provide an average of at least 4, and in some cases 12 or more, covered visits per person per year for their entire populations.

Note in passing, too, that the only other nation that can’t afford to provide universal health coverage is Mexico, which spends less than 30% of the average among these nations on healthcare and is still getting a vastly greater bang for its its bucks than is the US.

The utter, abject failure of the US’s profit-sucking healthcare morass is made as stark here as it has ever been. Basically, we’re spending over $4,300 per year for every covered person for nothing whatsoever, and giving up over a year of average life expectancy as our reward – while leaving tens of millions of people with no coverage whatsoever for most or all of their needs! It would be almost impossible to have a healthcare system worse than this, other than one with even less protections for patients than the US already has.

As Ezra Klein notes:

consider this: If we spent what Canada spends per person, our deficit problem would go away entirely. And Canada’s per-person average is in a country where everybody is fully covered and so has full access to care. America’s is in a country with 47 million uninsured, and so many people skimp on needed care. So the comparison is actually unfair to Canada. . . .

This is serious pitchforks-and-torches stuff, if only people really understood it. I continue to believe, however, that the improbable size of the disparity is a barrier to understanding. People just don’t believe these numbers. America may not be the best, but we’re not supposed to be the worst by such a large margin.

Oh, yes, we are. The system is designed to suck money out and deny care. It’s working perfectly. But why do we have a system designed to do that?

UPDATE:

There are some problems with the above graph, which I somewhat glossed over in the original post. DanM alludes to them in his comment below. It’s just as well to clarify some of these points.

First, the graph is somewhat misleading because it seems to position life expectancy as a direct function of healthcare spending: a certain amount of money buys you a certain number of years of life, and the slope of the line from one axis to the other describes the mathematical relationship between them. That is the inevitable broad-brush interpretation of the data, that is true (the whole point is that there is a link between the two factors, otherwise there’d be no point graphing them – and indeed the relation is clearly non-random as even a casual inspection of the graph shows) – but the line-graph format makes it much too literal.

Second, the scales of the axes are distorted. There is most obviously the fact that neither the expenditures axis, on the left, nor the lifespan axis, on the right, start at zero. The actual spread between high and low values on both axes is thus exaggerated, especially for lifespan. Also, the data ranges shown for each bear a very different relationship to the total range for data of each type: the top and bottom entries for healthcare expenditures span about 90% of the value of the top end of the scale, or about 80% if you exclude the US; the top and bottom entries for life expectancy span only about 12% of that range. If the two axes were scaled similarly, the right-hand values would all cluster into a tight knot and the blue lines would converge from high and low on the left into that small range, diminishing the impression of a clear correlation between the two values which is created by spreading the lifespan values out so much.

In addition, setting the average values of the two scales at the same vertical level is an arbitrary decision that reinforces the implicit message that the two are correlated. (A ratio between healthcare spending and lifespan that matches the dollars/years ratio of those average values will be a horizontal line at any level on the graph – thus those countries doing better on a dollars/years basis will have lines that slope up, and others will have lines that slope down.) Again, this is not unreasonable as a way of displaying this data, but it requires as an organizing assumption that the implicit correlation illustrated by the graph is in fact true – which puts the cart before the horse.

Finally, as Dan notes, there are other factors influencing lifespan, and implying that it is a direct function of healthcare expenditure, as this graph seems to do, is much too crude.

Nate Silver, brilliant statistical interpreter at “538“, recasts the same data in this fashion (click graph for larger version):


Healthcare Expenditure vs. Life Expectancy Scatterplot

Healthcare Expenditure vs. Life Expectancy Scatterplot


This graph is much fairer in certain ways. By removing the horizontal lines, it removes the visual implication of a direct mathematical function linking the two data sets. By graphing the data as a scatterplot on two orthogonal axes, it allows the viewer to draw their own conclusions without dictating a relationship in the design of the graph. Silver also takes the obvious steps of scaling the axes fairly and accurately, starting a zero for each.

However, this graph also supports the basic point made in the original version: there is an obvious trendline through the data set, and the US is an extreme outlier that falls insanely far below that trend. (To see how far, hold a ruler against your screen, paralleling the slope roughly marked out from the origin through the data cluster running up to the right – about where Canada falls out. Continue that line up to the right until it is directly above the red “USA” below. It should run off the graph up to somewhere in the third paragraph above the graph. That’s where the US should be, given what we spend (on only a fraction of our population). If you want it in numerical terms (and again taking the implied correlation rather too literally), US citizens who actually have access to healthcare should live more than 193 years, on average, if we were spending that money as effectively as most other countries do. From the reverse perspective, given the below-average life expectancy we get for our healthcare dollars, we could spend at least $4,000 per person per year less than we do  and still achieve our current quality outcome, if we were merely as efficient in our expenditures as, say, Denmark. That $4,000 – more than the average amount other industrialized nations spend per person in total – is the amount we are throwing away on our for-profit healthcare system, for no benefit whatsoever to ourselves.

It must be acknowledged that that correlation has not been subjected to statistical analysis, but the basic point is that the original graph, though its designers made some questionable choices, was not as bad as all that.

Hat Tip: to Andrew Gelman at Columbia, who did the original re-analysis from which Silver took his own version.

December 14, 2009

Fetus Christmas-Tree Ornaments . . . . (Oy vey! . . .)

by @ 8:29 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, Child-Rearing, General, Global/Community Health, Healthcare Politics, Personhood, Reproductive Ethics, Sex, Theory, Women's Issues

The latest entry in the “creepy personified fetus” category: the “Feti” – weird/cutesy Christmas-tree ornaments shaped like tiny embryos at about the 6-8 week stage (bulbous head, no digits, visible tail). As is usual with this genre, they sport adult-appropriate personal characteristics, including clothes, personal possessions, and in one case a moustache. You can buy Santa fetuses, “happy” fetuses, candy-cane-carrying fetuses, and an “Adam Lambert” fetus displaying a punk hairdo and clutching a Star of David – a cultural mishmash that I refuse to attempt to understand.

Happy Fetus

Happy Fetus

Feto Incognito

Feto Incognito

Adam Lambert Embryo

Adam Lambert Embryo

The purveyor of the site insists that “Feti is just for fun, no political statements being made here.” I’m tempted to believe that in her case, but the thing still strikes me as weird,  and indicative of a mindset that is worth noting.

The vendor suggests these are intended as gifts for expectant parents, as appropriate additions to the “Baby’s First _____” category of remembrances. (Exactly how, I’m not sure: “Baby’s First Disembodied Hanging on a Christmas Tree”?) In that vein, they play off the very common and understandable practice of many expectant parents in personifying their fetus as it develops – talking to it, playing music, naming it before it is born, and so on. They also seem to accept as a cultural commonplace the fetishizing – literally, in this case! – and personifying of the fetus that is a mainstay of anti-choice propaganda. (Anti-choicers often wear gold-plated fetal-footprint jewelry, and they are forever trying to force abortion patients to look at pictures or sonograms of the fetus.)

I don’t know if the anti-choice movement has so far succeeded in turning the fetus into a fetish object that you can now literally market them to the general public as holiday ornaments, or if the common desire to see fetuses as sort of reverse-extensions of babies simply makes this a natural marketing move, like Cabbage Patch dolls or those weird Anne Geddes photographs of babies in flower petals, and the right wing has merely piggybacked off that common emotional trope for their own purposes. The former would scare me a bit, the latter is merely infuriating. Either way, this sort of thing leaves me with a creepy feeling.

I’m happy for people to be happy about their pregnancies, and to embue their future offspring with emotional valence or even a somewhat overgrandiose sense of promise or accomplishment. In the same way that all parents think their kids are smart and talented, and I wouldn’t quarrel with that, expectant parents can and should go ga-ga over the cute little buns in their respective ovens. There is no point, in the case of people’s emotional experience of the events in their lives, to go around insisting to them “you know it has no functional higher nervous system, right?” . . . “that’s not a ‘person’ you’re carrying, in any meaningful sense of the term – just wanted to let you know” . . . “don’t get too close to it – there’s about a 1-in-12 chance you’ll lose the pregnancy”. But when it comes to law and policy-making, clear distinctions do have to be made – and at that point, the conflict between stark reality and parents’ expectations may be uncomfortable.

Regardless of parental beliefs, not all kids are smart or talented, and thus some won’t make it into selective academic or sports or art programs. And regardless of the fervent, desperately dishonest myth-making of the anti-choice right, the early fetus is not a person and does not make moral claims on a woman’s body and life sufficient to override her autonomy. It is unfortunate to have to disappoint people emotionally invested in believing otherwise, but it is far worse to make policy based on wishful thinking in defiance of the truth.

By all means, have yourself a merry little Christmas, and hang a smiling Adam Lambert Jewish punk fetus upon the highest bough. But let’s keep the “personified fetus” myth firmly in its place when we go to making important decisions about real issues in real people’s lives.

November 13, 2009

RNC to Women: Being a Republican Doesn’t Mean We Don’t Still Hate You

by @ 4:43 PM. Filed under Access to Healthcare, Autonomy, General, Healthcare Politics, Reproductive Ethics, Theory, Women's Issues

So, much has been made this week of the fact that the Republican National Committee, throughout its longstanding berserker campaign against women seeking control of their own bodies, has in fact been providing comprehensive healthcare insurance to its own employees – including female employees – for almost 20 years. Many fingers were pointed over the hypocrisy of attempting to prohibit abortion access for all women in America by every means possible, while covering abortion care for its own employees under their internal health insurance plan. (This in fact is in keeping with right-wing approaches to the issue generally: their values legendarily evaporate when it’s their personal interests at stake, and stories of women’s clinics providing abortion care to the same women who were picketing those clinics before and after the procedure are legion.)

Predictably, Michael Steele, the hapless RNC head, announced less than 24 hours after the story broke that that coverage provision had been rescinded unilaterally. The usual right-wing hysteria has erupted, with demands that people be fired and angry denunciations that donors to the RNC had not been allowed to deny healthcare to its female employees as they wanted to do. As Ben Smith rightly points out, not one female employee of the RNC – the ones whose coverage has now been stripped without their consultation (and presumably without any reduction in their premium contributions) – has been quoted or consulted in this move.

I note also that pro-choice ideology within the Republican party has run at about a steady 35-38% for most of a decade (a recent poll shows it down somewhat among Republicans, but is widely regarded as an outlier). I presume the large majority of those are women. Assuming further that women are half the GOP membership, that would mean that roughly two-thirds of GOP women are pro-choice (I suspect they’re actually less than half the membership, which would push the prevalence of pro-choice ideology even higher within that smaller female group). Now, I don’t know if the RNC employee base is representative of the Republican Party generally, but if it is, that would mean that about a third of its staff, and about two-thirds of all its female staff, are in favor of abortion rights. There are other factors to be considered, for which we don’t have data (what percentage favor having abortion covered in their health plan, as opposed to its just being legal; to what degree the RNC staff skew even crazier on abortion than the rank and file; what percentage of the staff are female; and so on), but any way you slice it it seems inevitable that there is at least some considerable degree of support for abortion services among the RNC’s staff, to say nothing of the GOP generally. Yet the RNC leadership revoked their own staff’s coverage without consultation, and without the slightest apparent consideration for that staff’s wishes, needs, or rights.

The message is clear enough, and, I suppose, fair and consistent in that peculiar GOP way: for Republicans, hurting women is more important than anything else – certainly more important than providing real healthcare for an entire nation, but more important also than seeing to the needs of their own membership. The Republican National Committee – a body that exists solely to cater to the interests and welfare of registered Republicans – stripped healthcare services that had been available for almost 20 years away from Republican women employed in the service of that body and their party, without the slightest hesitation or apparently without even talking to them.  Within the highest levels of the Republican Party itself, your lack of status as a woman trumps your preferential status as a Republican.

Michael Steele could have just made it much more simple and direct:

Steele-Ono

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