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News: August/September 2002

Doubting Dads in DNA Theft • A Smack of Censorship • Bare-Skinned Broilers • Medical Microchips • No Perfume for Kitty

The Philosopher as Minister

French philosopher Luc Ferry, wellknow for his criticisms of postmodernism and its adherents, has been named the new minister of youth, education and research by French President Jacques Chirac. Ferry challenged the role of Marxism in French society in the 1970s, and went on to critique the ideas of Michel Foucault, Jacques Derrida and other postmodernist thinkers in French Philosophy of the Sixties: An Essay on Anti-Humanism with Alain Renaut. The appointment will not be Ferry’s first in the realm of government: He also served as president of a national council overseeing the revision of the standard curriculum in higher education under both Chirac and Lionel Jospin.

Diane Pretty loses her battle

After a long and traumatic battle in the courts for her right to assisted suicide, Diane Pretty has died. Having been diagnosed with motor neurone disease (MND) in 1999, the Prettys launched the first legal challenge to the UK law on assisted suicides. Backed by the civil rights organisation, Liberty, and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Mrs Pretty wrote to the Director of Public Prosecutions, asking for an assurance that her husband, Mr Brian Pretty, would not be prosecuted for assisting a suicide if he helped her to die. The DPP’s refusal to grant immunity marked the beginning of the Prettys’ legal battle.

In an historic High Court hearing, Diane Pretty argued that her human rights enshrined in both the Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights were being breached by s2 of the Suicide Act 1961 with its blanket ban on assistance (even in exceptional circumstances) as this denied her the right to ‘die with dignity’. Diane Pretty lost her case, and later had her appeal rejected by the House of Lords. Undeterred, she took her arguments to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg only to lose yet again.

Less than a fortnight later, on 11th May 2002, Diane Pretty died after suffering the breathing difficulties she had fought so hard to avoid.

The case contrasts with the death of Miss B, paralysed after a blood vessel burst in her neck, who died peacefully in her sleep after winning the right to come off her ventilator. Although the cases appear similar, they involve different legal principles. The Miss B case dealt with the right of a competent adult to refuse medical treatment whereas Mrs Pretty’s dealt with the right to assisted suicide.

The argument that terminally ill patients should be allowed to die at a time of their choosing has been undermined by the post-mortem of an Australian woman, Nancy Crick. Crick, believing she was suffering from bowel cancer, took an overdose in front of her relatives and friends. However, the post-mortem concluded that she didn’t have cancer and was actually suffering from an inoperable but non-fatal twisted bowel. The police are considering charges of assisting suicide against witnesses to Ms Crick’s death.

Harvard stifles freedom of speech

A row has erupted at Harvard University over the politically sensitive subject of ‘jihad’. Zayed Yasin, a Chicago-born Muslim and one of three students chosen to speak at the University’s commencement day ceremony in June, decided to give an address on “the concept of Jihad as righteous struggle.” His speech has received support from Harvard’s president, Larry Summers, and the commencement day committee.

Some of Yasin’s fellow students have reacted angrily to the choice of subject as they feel it is offensive. Some Jewish students are particularly concerned, claiming that Yasin is a fierce opponent of Israel. Yasin has refused one activist to see the full text of the speech before the ceremony, arguing that “this really smacks of censorship – that goes against everything I believe both as an American and especially in the academic environment of Harvard.”

However, following negotiations with the Harvard Jewish community, Yasin agreed to change the title of his speech from its original ‘American Jihad’ to ‘Of Faith and Citizenship’.

Who’s the Father?

The Human Genetics Commission (HGC), the UK government advisory body, has proposed new legislation on the use and storage of genetic data in order to safeguard genetic privacy. Their report Inside Information: Balancing Interests in the Use of Personal Genetic Data expresses concern about the growing ease with which DNA tests can be carried out without the consent of all parties concerned.

As it is easy to obtain a DNA sample and cheap to have it analysed, fears have grown that the system is open to abuse. There have been reports in the US of fathers extracting hair or saliva samples from children without their mothers’ consent, and having them tested by private companies in order to claim or dispute paternity. The situation was recently highlighted by the case in California when a clandestinely obtained DNA sample was taken by a private detective from the film producer Steve Bing.

However, the new rules would outlaw the ‘theft’ of someone’s DNA to carry out genetic tests without their consent. Commenting on the situation, Helena Kennedy QC, chairwoman of the HGC, said that unauthorised taking of DNA is “a gross intrusion into another’s privacy.” The report targets ‘genetic discrimination’ in employment, proposing that employers should be banned from using personal genetic data to influence their personnel decisions. The HGC’s report is also concerned about the storage of genetic information on the national DNA database, the forensic science service’s genetic storage bank which is available to the police. It recommends an independent body to oversee the database.

Strasbourg votes to ban cosmetics tested on animals

MEPs have put EU governments under massive pressure to agree to new rules for the cosmetics industry by voting for a strict package of animal welfare measures which would cover the development of new cosmetics.

The proposals call for a total EUwide ban on testing cosmetics on animals to be in place by December 2004, an immediate ban on testing on animals in the EU of ingredients where alternative test methods have been validated, and a ban on the sale within the EU of all cosmetic products tested anywhere in the world designed to stop cosmetics companies exporting their testing to countries outside Europe. Under the EU plan, items now on sale would not be taken off the shelves, but it would apply to all new products.

Royality and Equality

As the crowds congregated in London to enjoy the Golden Jubilee celebrations, Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, expressed her support for amending the 1701 Act of Settlement in which the monarch’s eldest son automatically succeeds to the throne even if he has an older sister.

Her interview in the Financial Times calling for royal sex equality follows the Guardian’s campaign to repeal the 301 year-old law because it bars non- Protestants from succession to the throne. As well as promoting male primogeniture, the Act of Settlement also discriminates on grounds of religion because it ensures that the monarch is a Protestant, and bars them from marrying a Catholic so binding the church and state. Repealing the law could lead directly to the disestablishment of the Church of England.

On 31st May, more than 150 MPs, lords and religious leaders gave their backing to the Guardian campaign.

Oven-ready Chicken to Take Away

The first genetically modified featherless chicken has been revealed by the Israeli geneticist, Dr Avigdor Cahaner, of the Rehovot Agronomy Institute near Tel Aviv.

In the Daily Telegraph, Cahaner claimed that these featherless chickens are environmentally friendly, fast growing and low in calories.

Crossbreeding a bare-skinned bird with a regular broiler chicken, his redskinned prototype is being seen as the high speed future of chicken farming. Without feathers, Cahaner believes they will direct energy which would have been used to keep cool into growing faster. They would also save farmers money, and cut down on waste and pollution.

The controversial move has been condemned by animal rights campaigners as an attempt to produce “walking roast chicken factories.” Also, it has been noted that previous cases of chickens born without feathers have suffered a variety of problems. Dr Cahaner has conceded that his chickens might catch cold in chillier climates.

Medical Data Implants

Members of a family in Florida have become the first to receive medical microchip implants. The chips, implanted under the skin in the upper arm, contain limited information – only prescription history and family phone numbers in case of medical emergency. However, the technology raises many ethical questions concerning practice and use. On the one hand, the chips could quickly provide doctors with a patient’s entire medical history. On the other, questions arise about who has access to the data and for what purposes it may be used. Providing ample ammunition to slippery slope theorists, some companies are already looking into the possibility of building a Global Positioning System transmitter into the chip that would allow those with implants to be identified and located.

Big Brother is Watching You

Amidst a flurry of activity in the war on terrorism, the European Parliament recently approved legislation to give police the power to access telephone, internet and email traffic data.

The measure, denounced by critics as the biggest threat to data privacy in a generation, will enable governments of the member states to force telephone and internet companies to retain detailed logs of their customers’ communications for an unspecified period. Currently, records are only kept for a couple of months for billing purposes before being destroyed.

Although police will still require a warrant to intercept the content of electronic communications, they will still be able to build up a picture of an individual’s personal communications and use mobile phone location data capable of tracking a user’s whereabouts.

Reacting to the vote, Tony Bunyan, editor of Statewatch, commented that: “The problem with wanting to monitor a few people is that you end up having to keep data on everybody.”

The British government, which played a key role in proposing the EU measure, recently attempted to grant extended powers of access to a broad range of Whitehall departments, local authorities and public bodies. However, the plans for a ‘snoopers’ charter’ have been shelved as a result of intense opposition.

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