Archive for September 2016
A few months ago, after a fertility procedure at a Mexican clinic, a healthy baby boy was born in New York to a couple from Jordan. It was the first live birth of a child who has been called — to the dismay of scientists who say the term is grossly misleading — a three-parent baby.
“This is huge,” said Dr. Richard J. Paulson, president-elect of the American Society for Reproductive Medicine, after the birth was reported on Tuesday.
The method used to help the couple is one that reproductive scientists have been itching to try, but it is enormously controversial because it uses genetic material from a donor in addition to that of the couple trying to conceive. The purpose is to overcome flaws in a parent’s mitochondria that can cause grave illnesses in babies.
And why exactly should this helpful procedure be ‘enormously controversial’?
Part of the answer lies in that term ‘three-parent baby’, rightly described as grossly misleading.
The New York Times:
Mitochondria, the cell’s energy factories, are separate from the DNA that determines a child’s inherited traits. But mutations in these little organelles can be devastating, resulting in fatal diseases involving the nerves, muscles, brain, heart, liver, skeletal muscles, kidney and the endocrine and respiratory systems that often kill babies in the first few years of life.
The technique that led to the healthy birth was to move the DNA from an egg of the mother, who had mutated mitochondria, and place it in the egg of a healthy egg donor — after first removing the healthy donor’s nuclear DNA from her egg cell. Then that egg, with its healthy mitochondria and the mother’s DNA, could be fertilized….
A small number of children each year are born with faults in their mitochondrial DNA which can cause diseases. Mitochondria are small structures that sit inside our cells and provide them with energy. They have their own set of 37 genes which are separate from the 20,000 or so genes that shape who we are.
… On a genetic level, all of the 20,000 genes on the child’s 23 pairs of chromosomes come from the child’s mother and father. The donor only contributes DNA that sit in the mitochondria, less than 0.2% of the total.
The New York Times:
“Mitochondria,” Dr. Paulson said, “do not define who you are.” The genes for traits that make up a person’s appearance and other characteristics are carried in the nuclear DNA. If a white woman got mitochondria from an Asian woman, for example, her babies would be white, with no traces of the Asian mitochondrial donor. The ban, said Dr. Paulson, “is not scientific, not rational, not evidence-based.”
The Catholic church opposes one form of mitochondrial transfer, called pronuclear transfer, because a fertilised egg from the mother is destroyed in the process. Catholic ethicists have also complained that mitochondrial transfer introduces a “rupture” between mother and father and “dilutes parenthood”.
Roman Catholic objections to that first form of mitochondrial transfer are consistent with that church’s opposition to abortion, and in that sense are understandable.
But there is a second method, called mitochondrial spindle transfer (MST).
The Guardian explains:
In this, doctors use standard IVF procedures to collect eggs from the mother. They take the nucleus from one of the eggs and drop it into a healthy donor egg that has had its own nucleus removed. The reconstituted egg contains all the normal genes from the mother, but her faulty mitochondria are replaced by those from the healthy donor. The egg is then fertilised with the father’s sperm. The resulting embryo has the usual 23 pairs of chromosomes that hold the mother and father’s DNA, but the 37 mitochondrial genes, about 0.2% of the total, come from a third person, the donor.
So no fertilized egg is destroyed.
Problem! Enter those ‘Catholic ethicists’ talking about a “rupture” between mother and child as grounds for objecting to all types of mitochondrial transfer. Their evidence for this ‘rupture’ is what exactly?
Let’s not forget that this is a church that, when it’s not opining on the scientific basis for exorcism, is also a church that claims to be a scientific authority on climate change.
It is also a church that likes to proclaim its compassion.
Mitochondrial diseases tend to strike in childhood and get steadily worse. They often prove fatal before adulthood. The parts of the body that need most energy are worst affected: the brain, muscles, heart and liver. Conditions include Leigh’s disease, progressive infantile poliodystrophy and Barth syndrome. Faulty mitochondria have also been linked to more common medical problems, including Parkinson’s, deafness, failing eyesight, epilepsy and diabetes…There are no cures for mitochondrial disorders.
The New York Times:
When Dr. Zhang [the doctor who led the team that carried out the procedure] told the Jordanian couple about the technique, they hesitated. They already had a child who was terribly ill with Leigh syndrome, a mitochondrial disease, but there was a chance they could have a normal baby on their own — a quarter of the woman’s mitochondria were mutated, but mitochondria are distributed at random in eggs. If an egg with mostly good mitochondria happened to be fertilized, the baby would be fine. They decided to take their chances.
The couple returned to Jordan and had a baby. But the baby had the same mitochondrial disease, Leigh syndrome. It is a terrible disease, Dr. Zhang said. Babies progressively lose their ability to move and breathe. The baby had a tracheotomy and a feeding tube, he said, and the parents had to suction the baby’s lungs every hour.
The first baby died at age 6; the second baby at 8 months.
And so far as the church is concerned, that’s sad, doubtless, but not something that can be helped.
The New York Times:
The couple returned to Dr. Zhang, ready to try the mitochondrial transfer technique. New Hope Fertility Center has a clinic in Mexico, so he suggested doing the procedure there because it is effectively banned in the United States. More than a decade ago, the Food and Drug Administration ordered clinics to file an application to do such work. Later, Congress attached a rider to a bill making it impossible to fund such research.
By six months of pregnancy, the woman said she knew this baby was different. It kicked constantly — the others, affected even in the womb, had hardly moved. Now the boy is 5 months old and healthy, and has normal mitochondria. The birth was first reported on Tuesday by New Scientist magazine.
Reproductive scientists who have been frustrated by the ban were both gratified by Dr. Zhang’s success and angry that it took so long. Britain recently allowed research on mitochondrial transfers to proceed, but nothing has changed in the United States.
A sharp rise in the number of people dabbling in Satanism and the occult is fueling a growing demand for more exorcists on both sides of the Atlantic. Speaking in tongues, levitating and vomiting nails may seem far-fetched to most people, but experts from the Catholic Church in Italy and the US claim there is an urgent need to recruit more priests as exorcists in order to combat sorcery and black magic.
Valter Cascioli, a psychologist and scientific consultant to the International Association of Exorcists, which is endorsed by the Vatican, described as an “emergency” the lack of priests capable of fighting the forces of evil.
“The lack of exorcists is a real emergency. There is a pastoral emergency as a result of a significant increase in the number of diabolical possessions that exorcist priests are confronting,” he told La Stampa newspaper.
Dr Cascioli teaches courses in exorcism at the Pontifical University of Regina Apostolorum, a Vatican-backed university in Rome. “The number of exorcists has increased in recent years, but there are still not enough to deal with a dramatic situation that affects, above all, young people who use the internet a lot.
The Internet, always guilty….
Back to the Telegraph:
“There is a broad spread of superstitious practices, and with that a growing number of requests for help from people who are directly or indirectly struck by evil.
“It is dangerous to underestimate a phenomenon that is caused by the direct actions of the devil, but also by a decline in faith and values.”
He called for the establishment of a permanent training college or university where Catholic priests would be taught how to counter the malign influence of the Devil. “There doesn’t exist a training institution at university level. We need an interdisciplinary approach in which science collaborates with religion, and psychiatrists work with demonologists and exorcists.”
He said it was important not to confuse cases of diabolical possession with psychiatric illnesses. Only one per cent of people who claim to have problems with demons have real need of an exorcist, he said.
Still, one percent represents, I suspect, quite a number. Who knew?
Father Gary Thomas, whose training in Rome was chronicled in the book The Rite: The Making of a Modern Exorcist, and Father Vincent Lampert, whose work has featured on the television show Paranormal Witness, said demonic possessions were the result of an increase in drug and pornography addiction.
That the former can be associated with severe psychological problems is, of course, only a coincidence, while the reference to pornography as, in a real sense, an ‘addiction’ is a sign that we have entered territory where the science is not—rigorous.
They also pointed to a rise in the popularity of “pagan activities”, such as using a Ouija board to summon the dead, the failure of the mental health care system, a spiritual void in the lives of Americans and the diminishing authority of the Church.
It’s worth paying attention to that reference to the ‘diminishing authority of the church’. There’s some truth to that. The decline of established religion has meant that people are willing to go elsewhere to satisfy their spiritual needs, and on occasion, sadly, to some highly unsavory destinations. But Satanism is not proof of Satan.
What we do see in this story is the church using the Devil as an argument against behavior, from drugs to porn, to overdoing it on the Internet, of which it disapproves.
And, none too subtly, it is, in a way, also using the Devil as a recruiting sergeant to fill its own pews.
That’s not to argue that many senior churchmen do not believe in the Devil (some more literally–and, so to speak, frequently–than others) but sometimes all that talk of the threat Old Nick allegedly represents does seem very convenient.
Ahead of his day trip to Assisi to participate in a World Day of Prayer for Peace, Pope Francis said that the gathering of women and men religious from around the world is not a “spectacle” but simply a prayer for peace in a world at war.
“Today the world will have its center at Assisi, for a day of prayer, penitence and crying, because the world is at war,” he said on Tuesday. “God the father of all, Christians and not, wants peace. There’s no god of war, this is done by the devil.”
Well, that rather depends. God is, as I’ve noted before, in the eye of the beholder and if that beholder decides that his God wishes war, then a God of war is what He will be, much as that might embarrass the Pope.
Gabriel Said Reynolds, writing in the Daily News in 2015 (my emphasis added):
A video shot earlier this month in which Libyan militants line up 21 Egyptians on a beach and cut their heads off provides a window into the killers’ motivations. This one, complete with dramatic music and images of the sea turned red from blood (it was likely shot elsewhere and manipulated to look like it took place by the sea) ends with one of the militants pointing a knife in the air and proclaiming in English: “We will conquer Rome, by Allah’s permission.”
…The militant movement imagines itself to be at the beginning of an apocalyptic battle with Christians. An anticipation of that fight is what has attracted thousands of young Muslims from around the world to take up arms.
….[When] the ISIS militant declares, “we will conquer Rome,” he has in mind an end-times scenario in which the forces of Islam will confront and defeat an army of Christians in an apocalyptic battle in Syria and then proceed to take Istanbul or Rome (there is some confusion here because classical Islamic traditions describe Constantinople — today Istanbul — as the capital of “Roman” territories).
ISIS’ obsession with this scenario explains why the fourth issue of Dabiq — the movement’s flashy online magazine — features an image of St. Peter’s basilica in Rome with the black flag of ISIS flying above it.
Yes, a God of war.
Pope Francis has encouraged Europeans to welcome refugees, calling authentic hospitality “our greatest security against hateful acts of terrorism.”
Francis Saturday spoke to alumni of Jesuit schools in Europe who were in Rome for a conference on refugees.
There’s a lot I could say about this, but I won’t.
Just ask yourself what it says about the judgment, and, perhaps, more than just the judgment, of the man who is now Pope.
Comments off · Posted by Andrew Stuttaford in Uncategorized
Count me skeptical about former French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, but I had to warm, so to speak, to this comment (via Politico):
Sarkozy, who hopes to secure the center-right Les Républicains party’s presidential nomination, told business leaders earlier this week that “climate has been changing for four billion years” and “you need to be as arrogant as men are to believe we changed the climate.”
Sarkozy is nothing if not an opportunist, so it’s interesting to read that he sees the opportunity in a spot of blasphemy.
Cue: Brendan O’Neill, with some commonsense:
The swiftness and ugliness of the response to Sarkozy’s comments confirm that questioning climate change is to the 21st century what querying the divinity of Christ was to the 14th.
There are decent arguments to be made to support the claim that man is changing the climate, but those arguments have been replaced by appeals to faith.
In the speech [Sarkozy] said, ‘People [talk] a lot about climate change… but the climate has been changing for the past 4.5 billion years. Man is not the sole cause of this change.’ He then said something that struck me as reasonable but which is apparently mental and unutterable: ‘Sahara has become a desert — [that] isn’t because of industry.’
…The most revealing comment came from Valerie Masson-Delmotte, who is on the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change, a kind of eco-version of the Holy See, only less open to criticism and debate. She said our ‘developed societies’ have been ‘built on a pact between scientists and politicians’ and Sarkozy risks breaking this pact. In short, politicians must now heed, and certainly not openly knock, the claims of climatologists. These people have a cavalier disregard not only for freedom of speech, but also for democracy. A politician’s responsibility is to push his ideas, and try to win public support for them, not to read obediently from turgid scientific documents and instruct the throng on how to think about the climate and improve their eco-behaviour.
The fury over Sarkozy’s sensible comments — even if you think, as I do, that mankind has had some impact on the climate, you surely recognise that climate has always been changing? — shows how intolerant the eco-outlook has become. Whether they’re branding people ‘deniers’ or suggesting climate-change denial should be made into a crime, greens have a strange and terrifying urge to silence dissent; to circumscribe debate; to elevate The Science (they always use the definite article before the word science, speaking to their transformation of it into religion) above public debate.
Why so touchy? If they’re so sure they possess the truth, why do they seek to crush anyone who questions them? Because behind all the scientific posturing, what we have here is a deeply ideological outlook, one which views mankind as destructive, progress as a stain on the planet, and putting the brakes on industry as the only solution to pollution. And this ideology cannot be undermined. Sarkozy’s crime was to suggest that mankind isn’t the destroyer of worlds. The misanthropes will not stand for it.
“Why so touchy?”
That is the question that counts…
Meanwhile, The Daily Telegraph reports:
Plastic crockery and cutlery is to be banned in France unless it is made from biologically sourced materials. The law comes into force in 2020. It is part of a French environmental initiative called the Energy Transition for Green Growth, part of a package aimed at tackling climate change.
Ah yes, few religions are complete without a list of what is forbidden….
Once upon a time it was alien abductions, and not so long before that, the Satanic panic of the 1980s, a wave of hysteria that spilled over into some of the child abuse prosecutions of that era with sometimes appalling consequences.
Now there is this.
The Independent reports:
Sightings of creepy clowns trying to lure children away are spreading across the US, with no-one sure whether the whole thing is a hoax or a terrifying new trend in abductions.
Four states have now reported the sinister sightings.
They began in South Carolina, before spreading to North Carolina and have since surfaced in Georgia and Alabama….
In Georgia, police said they had received numerous reports of clowns trying to talk to children as well as a threat by someone promising to dress up and kidnap school pupils….
Officers finally solved part of the mystery on Thursday, saying they had charged two people with making false police reports after they say the pair called 911 to report that people dressed as clowns were trying to lure children into a white van.
Police who responded to the calls found found two people in a white van who had run out of gas, and found no clown masks or costumes, and the 911 callers admitted the whole thing was a hoax.
The reports are not entirely new, however.
Bakersfield was among the towns in California that was gripped in2014 by dozens of reports of clown sightings including some saying they were armed.
Comments off · Posted by mupetblast in Church & State
Just as the level of trust in the West’s governing institutions is at or near all-time lows, the Daily Telegraph reports that British officials in the vicinity of Birmingham are considering allowing female officers of the Islamic persuasion to don…burkas:
A police force could become the first in the country to allow officers to wear the full-face veil after it launched a recruitment drive to increase diversity. West Midlands Police said it has “no barriers” relating to the burka as they announced that they would discuss allowing the traditional Islamic dress to become part of a policewoman’s uniform.
Chief Constable David Thompson said he would look into employing officers who wear the burka if the issue arose, as the force tries to increase the percentage of black and minority ethnic (BME) officers in the region to 30 per cent.
But this mindless attempt to signal anti-racism (note the now automatic conflation of religion and race) even to the point of completely jettisoning common sense was rejected by none other than the Muslim Association of Britain (the UK’s CAIR). The MAB believes the move would prove too unwieldy.
“We appreciate that West Midlands Police are trying to open up and recruit more ethnic minority backgrounds,” said the MBA’s Omer Elhamdoon. “But we feel wearing the burka would restrict duties, so the role might just be confined to being based in an office.”
Mr Davies, a Conservative MP, added: “It’s hard to believe that anybody with a strong religious view about how they react to men is going to be able to suddenly jump on a man and handcuff them, or rip off their shirt and offer them resuscitation. [Furthermore] The burka is a symbol of oppression for women and not something that a modern police force should be supporting.”
Note that it takes a conservative to point this out in the post-nothing, upside down-everything West.
We’ll have to see what emerges from the eventual prosecution, but this story (reported in the Daily Telegraph, with my emphasis added) from Argentina may be interesting for the light it casts on the Christian fascination with suffering (discussed here the other day) and also by the claim that the church should be above the law, a claim that also runs through the arguments sometimes made for the absolutist version of ‘religious liberty’ now being peddled in the US.
A Carmelite mother superior in Argentina faces prosecution for alleged torture after one of her former charges told a TV show that she had gone through “hell” before managing to escape from a convent. The 34-year-old nun, whose face was blacked out during the interview on the channel El Trece, claimed she had endured “physical and psychological” torture during her 10-year period of reclusion in the convent, including enforced self-flagellation, the wearing of a wire garter, being gagged for up to a week and locked up in isolation. “With Mother Superior Isabel I was subjected to the gag. Then there was a whip called discipline which was dipped in molten wax to make it harsher. We performed self-flagellation, beating ourselves on the buttocks, every week as a rule,” the former nun from the Barefoot (or Discalced) Carmelite convent in Nogoyá, northern Argentina said.
The woman, who said she had entered the order at the age of 18, also said they were forced to wear a cilice, a “crown of wires strapped around the leg that draws blood”, three times a week during Lent. But she said the worst torture she endured was psychological, being locked up alone in a cell and hearing voices telling her that others nuns’ illnesses, such as one sister’s tumour, were curses wrought upon the monastery due to her sinful nature.
Two nuns have reported the mother superior, identified by the authorities only as María Isabel, claiming she kept them against their will in the gated convent grounds. In late August police raided the convent, forcing the door open after the mother superior allegedly refused to allow them to enter.
The officers seized instruments of the alleged torture, including whips, cilices and gags. Prosecutors have recommended charges with a penalty of 15 years in prison for the mother superior, who was to face an investigating judge on Wednesday. Church leaders have justified the use of such instruments as penitential aids. “It’s not punishment, but rather discipline,” said Ignacio Patat, spokesman for the Archbishopric of Paraná, which oversees the convent.
“Let’s not forget that monasteries have different rules. This is the law of Saint Teresa, shall we say the old way of life that the Carmelite sisters follow”, Mr Patat told a radio station.
The austere order of the Barefoot Carmelites was founded in 1593 following the teachings of two Spanish saints, Teresa of Ávila and John of the Cross. Mortification and penance are considered useful as aids to deep prayer.
“The Church has the right to rule itself,” read a statement by Argentina’s Society of Canon Law. “The state should enforce respect for religious freedom and not compromise it because some things seem incomprehensible.”
Crux magazine appears to disapprove of the raid, taking time to defend the use of the cilice:
Although the practice to use the cilice is not as widespread as it once was, some of history’s greatest saints wore them, either in the most common modern form of a spiked chain which irritates the skin or as an undergarment made of hair as it was customary in the past. For instance, St. Francis of Assisi, St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Therese of Lisieux are known to have used them, as well as soon to be declared saint Mother Teresa, St. Padre Pio, and Pope Paul VI….
The sisters have remained silent, yet the local Catholic hierarchy has expressed its concern over the way the situation was handled. Archbishop Juan Alberto Piuggari of Entre Rios, the diocese where the convent is located, said the papal representative in the country and the bishops conference considered the raid to be disproportionate…Piuggari also denied that the Mother Superior had refused to let them in: “She told them to give her a minute to call the bishop and they broke down the door. Is that refusing [to let them in]?”
The prelate also said that the procedure should have been “different,” and that Archbishop Emil Paul Tscherrig, the papal representative in the country, should have been informed beforehand since the monastery reports directly to the Vatican.
Madness, too much time in the desert or just the right hallucinogenic concoction all seem to be reasonably reliable routes to mysticism. Ayahuasca is (the New Yorker reports) “an intensely hallucinogenic potion made from boiling woody Banisteriopsis caapi vines with the glossy leaves of the chacruna bush” an—bonus—it comes with added ‘indigenous’ chic.
The story begins with some Americans wandering through the Amazon (of course it does) in the early 1970s (of course it did).
[T]he travellers found themselves in a psychedelic paradise. There were cattle pastures dotted with Psilocybe cubensis—magic mushrooms—sprouting on dung piles; there were hammocks to lounge in while you tripped; there were Banisteriopsis caapi vines growing in the jungle. Taken together, the drugs produced hallucinations that the brothers called “vegetable television.” When they watched it, they felt they were receiving important information directly from the plants of the Amazon.
The McKennas were sure they were on to something revelatory, something that would change the course of human history. “I and my companions have been selected to understand and trigger the gestalt wave of understanding that will be the hyperspacial zeitgeist,” Dennis wrote in his journal. Their work was not always easy. During one session, the brothers experienced a flash of mutual telepathy, but then Dennis hurled his glasses and all his clothes into the jungle and, for several days, lost touch with “consensus reality.” It was a small price to pay. The “plant teachers” seemed to have given them “access to a vast database,” Dennis wrote, “the mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.”
Hyperspatial zeitgeist. Consensus reality. Plant teachers. The mystical library of all human and cosmic knowledge.
The New Yorker:
Most people who take ayahuasca in the United States do so in small “ceremonies,” led by an individual who may call himself a shaman, an ayahuasquero, a curandero, a vegetalista, or just a healer. This person may have come from generations of Shipibo or Quechua shamans in Peru, or he may just be someone with access to ayahuasca.
Naturally, wicked Western materialism takes a knock:
Ifcocaine expressed and amplified the speedy, greedy ethos of the nineteen-eighties, ayahuasca reflects our present moment—what we might call the Age of Kale. It is a time characterized by wellness cravings, when many Americans are eager for things like mindfulness, detoxification, and organic produce, and we are willing to suffer for our soulfulness.
Well, you will:
The majority of users vomit—or, as they prefer to say, “purge.”
The New Yorker:
The process of making ayahuasca is beyond artisanal: it is nearly Druidical. “We pick the chacruna leaf at sunrise in this very specific way: you say a prayer and just pick the lower ones from each tree,” a lithe ayahuasquera in her early forties—British accent, long blond hair, a background in Reiki…She and her boyfriend serve the ayahuasca—“divine consciousness in liquid form”
A background in Reiki.
The New Yorker:
When a person drinks ayahuasca, a plant-messenger molecule targets the neurons that mediate consciousness, facilitating what devotees describe as a kind of interspecies communication.
If the plant really is talking to the person, many people hear the same thing: we are all one. Some believe that the plants delivering this message are serving their own interests, because if humans think we are one with everything we might be less prone to trash the natural world. In this interpretation, B. caapi and chacruna are the spokesplants for the entire vegetable kingdom.
Ecologically aware too. Is there anything that ayahuasca is not?
In any event, if you are interested in this sort of thing (I am) it’s well worth reading as a fascinating, accidentally revealing look at the appeal of ritual, superstition and the cult of the pre-modern.