Thanks to an American Catholic bishop, the pandemic gets a boost

November 20, 2020 • 9:00 am

I was going to say “the Catholic Church gives the pandemic a shot in the arm,” but that would have been confusing. Reader Bill sent me this link to the Los Angeles Times about a faith-soaked Catholic bishop (click on screenshot) who’s bad-mouthing coronavirus vaccines because they’re supposedly made using embryonic tissue from aborted fetuses or from surplus embryos used during in vitro fertilization (IVF) that are eventually discarded.

An excerpt:

Citing ethical concerns about the use of fetal cells in vaccine development, Bishop Joseph Brennan of the Diocese of Fresno is urging Catholics not to “jump on the COVID-19 vaccine bandwagon.”

In a video shared by the diocese this week, Brennan said that some of the researchers racing to produce a coronavirus vaccine have made use of cells derived from an aborted fetus, and perhaps other “morally objectionable” materials.

“I try to maintain a joyful spirit, so I don’t like to rain on anyone’s parade,” Brennan said. “But I’m going to rain on a parade today: the vaccine parade.”

In his message, Brennan said the use of fetal cells at any stage of a vaccine’s development means Catholics cannot avail themselves of its scientific results.

“I won’t be able to take a vaccine, brothers and sisters, and I encourage you not to, if it was developed with material from stem cells that were derived from a baby that was aborted, or material that was cast off from artificial insemination of a human embryo,” he said. “That’s morally unacceptable for us.”

. . . Brennan said he is not opposed to vaccines in general, and noted that he has received vaccines for the flu and pneumonia, but said he is specifically opposed to vaccines derived from babies “whose lives were taken.”

This is one example of the hypocrisy of Catholicism. Even if vaccines were made using fetal or embryonic tissue, that tissue would eventually be discarded. Why not use it to save lives? Further, even if you think that discarding unused IVF embryos, or aborting fetuses, is “murder,” there is no evidence that women will undergo these procedures in order to help create vaccines.  Bishop Brennan has a bizarre kind of calculus in which tissue already available cannot be used to save other lives. Note that he is in general expressing the position of the Catholic church, though I don’t think the Pope has yet weighed in on this.

But are the vaccines really made using this kind of tissue? Nope—not one mentioned by Brennan during his video homily:

He cited the Pfizer vaccine by name, which — along with another vaccine from Moderna — has been roundly celebrated as a breakthrough in the fight against the coronavirus.

Brennan did not explain why he singled out Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine for criticism. There is no indication that it was developed using either fetal cells or human embryonic stem cells.

“Not a single stage has had it,” Pfizer spokeswoman Jerica Pitts said Thursday.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccine candidates are made with a snippet of the coronavirus’ genetic code, and both are estimated to be roughly 95% effective.

You think the good bishop would have done his homework, for how many Catholics that heard his homily are going to check for themselves?

It is true that some vaccines are made using fetal tissue:

The Charlotte Lozier Institute, an antiabortion organization, has flagged five COVID-19 vaccine candidates that were developed with the help of fetal cells. One of them, developed by Oxford University and AstraZeneca, is in late-stage testing. So is another developed by Johnson & Johnson.

If Catholics are worried about burning in hell if they take a vaccine developed this way, all they have to do is take the Pfizer or Moderna vaccine. But I repeat: even if you equate abortion or unused IVF embryos as “murder”, what is the moral objection to using that tissue to save further lives? It’s not as if women get IVF and abortions for the purpose of creating vaccines, or get paid to do so. Those abortions or IVF procedures would take place with or without a vaccine being developed.

All I can say is that it’s a good thing that at least some vaccines are being developed without use of fetal or embryonic material, because otherwise pious Catholics wouldn’t be able to get vaccinated, and more people would die in the name of a senseless “morality”.

Poland bans more legal abortions, making the country nearly abortion-free

October 26, 2020 • 9:00 am

When Poland was under the Communists, and until 1993, abortions of all types were legal up to three months into pregnancy. Then the Catholic country banned all abortions with just four exceptions: pregnancies resulting from rape, ditto for incest, pregnancies that endangered the mother’s life, and when the fetus was abnormal.  Yet even these legal abortions were nearly impossible to get, as doctors had (and still have) the right to refuse to do legal abortions.  The result was that the country had very few legal abortions (1,100 in 2019), and almost all of those (1,074 according to the NYT article below) were for fetal abnormalities.

Most Polish women, stymied by the system and the difficulty of getting abortions, went to other EU countries—to places like Czechoslovakia. Estimates are that about 100,000 of these abortions, many paid for by the women themselves or by NGOs defending women, were performed yearly.

Now,  however, the 98% of legal abortions in Poland performed because of deformed fetuses are about to be banned as well, making abortion effectively unavailable in that country. The NYT and BBC articles below (click on screenshots) tell the tale.

Although polls show that most Poles want to return the the three-months legal abortion system, the right-wing PiS (“Law and Justice Party”), which controls the government and much of the judiciary, along with nudges from the influential Catholic Church, has seen to it that the Constitutional Court declared abortions because of deformed fetuses illegal. (Poland has both a Supreme Court and a Constitutional Court, and the latter can declare laws unconstitutional without needing to rule on a court case.)

Here’s the basis for the decision, which of course smacks heavily of Catholic doctrine:

In the ruling, the tribunal’s president, Julia Przylebska, said that allowing abortions in cases of fetal abnormality legalized “eugenic practices with regard to an unborn child, thus denying it the respect and protection of human dignity.”

Because the Polish Constitution guarantees a right to life, she added, terminating a pregnancy based on the health of the fetus amounted to “a directly forbidden form of discrimination.”

In response, thousands of Polish citizens, many of them women, took to the streets, and, in an unprecedented act of near-blasphemy, even interrupted Catholic masses with their protests.

Now the law hasn’t yet taken effect, as it has to first be published in official government notices. That’s normally done almost instantly, but the government seems to have been taken aback by the protests and there’s been no publication yet. (Only once before was a constitutional decision not published and therefore didn’t become law.) Smart betting, however, is on the decision being published very soon. With the restrictions and the right of doctors to refuse to do the procedure, we’ll now see only a few dozen legal abortions per year in Poland.

This is what happens when a right-wing and repressive government (backed largely by the church) gets legal control of women’s reproduction. Sound familiar? Americans may be in for a similar situation if state after state tightens its abortion restrictions and the new Barrett court begins ruling on reproductive rights.

Poland is clearly contravening the will of the people on this issue. But in Poland, the will of the people means nothing when it’s contrary to the doctrines of the Catholic church.

Here’s a photo of anti-government demonstrations about abortions in 2016; the signs are very clever:


h/t: Malgorzata

Stare decisis rules! John Roberts again votes with the liberals, nullifying Louisiana’s restrictive abortion law

June 29, 2020 • 10:00 am

According to CNN and the New York Times, John Roberts has once again joined the Supreme Court’s four liberals to produce a fantastic 5-4 decision, this time overturning a restrictive abortion law in Louisiana that would have effectively blocked nearly all abortions in the state, limiting the number of doctors in Louisiana who could provide abortions to ONE.

According to the NYT, here are the details of the law:

The case was the court’s first on abortion since President Trump’s appointments of two justices shifted the court to the right.

The Louisiana law, which was enacted in 2014, requires doctors performing abortions to have admitting privileges at nearby hospitals.

The law’s supporters said the law protects the health and safety of women seeking abortions, and that the requirements for obtaining admitting privileges helps ensure the competence of doctors. Opponents disputed that, saying that hospitalizations after abortions are rare, that women would receive medical care at hospitals whether their doctors had admitting privileges or not and that abortion providers are often unable to obtain admitting privileges for reasons unrelated to their competence.

Only two of the five doctors who provide abortions in Louisiana have obtained admitting privileges, one in New Orleans and one in Shreveport. But the Shreveport doctor testified that he could not handle the clinic’s work alone. If the law went into effect, a trial judge concluded, there would be a single doctor in a single clinic, in New Orleans, available to provide abortions in Louisiana.

The Court’s opinion, penned by Stephen Breyer, can be found here.

Roberts is mellowing with time and shedding his conservatism, for in 2016 he joined the losing conservative minority in another restrictive-abortion case, this time involving a Texas law.

Thank Ceiling Cat that Trump can’t make the final decision about what is American law!

Tennessee effectively bans abortions

June 20, 2020 • 11:00 am

Tennessee, by a majority vote of both its House and Senate (68-17 in the former, 23-5 in the latter) has effectively spit in the face of the Supreme Court, blocking abortions that were already deemed legal in Roe v. Wade. Read about it in this CNN report (click on the screenshot below). In fact, with its new regulations, Tennessee may have banned almost all abortions, since the threshold criterion (the presence of a fetal heartbeat) can occur as early as six weeks—before many women even know they’re pregnant.

Both chambers of the Tennessee legislature are, of course, Republican, but I don’t know how the vote along party lines, though I can bet that nearly all Republicans voted for the bill.

If you remember, Roe v. Wade tossed the regulations to the states, but ruled that abortions cannot be prohibited in the first trimester (12 weeks), might be subject to “reasonable health regulations” in the second (12-24 weeks), and can be prohibited by the states in the third trimester (24 weeks-term), so long as exceptions are allowed to preserve the mother’s life and health.

The new law makes hash of that. As CNN notes:

The legislation — which prompted immediate legal action from several abortion rights groups — effectively bans abortion after a fetal heartbeat is detected, as early as six weeks, through 24 weeks into a pregnancy. The bill would make exceptions to protect the life of the woman, but not for instances of rape or incest. Abortions after viability, which is around 24 weeks, are already illegal in Tennessee except in cases where the woman’s life is in danger.

The Tennessee bill punishes abortion providers with up to 15 years in jail and a $10,000 maximum fine. It also prohibits an abortion where the doctor knows the woman is seeking an abortion because of the child’s race, sex, or a diagnosis indicating Down syndrome.

Under the bill, a doctor would have to inform the pregnant woman of the gestational age, perform an ultrasound and display the images, and check for a fetal heartbeat and play it out loud before proceeding. The woman can decline to view the images or hear the heartbeat.

The bill also requires abortion providers who provide more than 50 abortions a year to post notices that medication abortion involving a two-drug process could be reversed if the second pill has not been taken, though claims of potential abortion reversal are “not based on science and do not meet clinical standards,” according to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.

Six weeks is well before the fetus is viable, though of course that will inevitably change as medical advances allow us to keep embryos alive at earlier and earlier stages. But this bill, clearly designed to force a court test of abortion law, may also be designed to give judges some leeway to move the threshold earlier than the first trimester, though I don’t see the Supreme Court reversing its earlier decision.  The notion that this bill will give higher courts some “wiggle room” comes from this part of the CNN report:

The Tennessee bill comes as several red states have passed restrictive abortion laws with the hopes of forcing a broad court challenge to the 1973 landmark Supreme Court decision in Roe v. Wadethat legalized abortion nationwide.
At least eight other states, with Republicans in control of the legislature, passed abortion restrictions last year based on gestational limits. Judges have blocked all of the laws that have been taken up in state-level challenges.
Tennessee Republicans acknowledged that this legislation is a “risk,” so to protect against legal challenges and if a court strikes down the six-week ban, the bill includes a “ladder” provision, which would generate new prohibitions, adding add two weeks of gestation if the previous bill is turned back by the courts.
Tennessee governor Bill Lee, who is a Republican, has ten days to sign the bill, veto it, or let it become law without signing it.

What’s for sure is that courts will intervene immediately to block the bill from going into effect until it’s adjudicated by higher courts, as on its face it is unconstitutional. Indeed, according to the WBIR article below, legal challenges have already been mounted by the ACLU and Planned Parenthood.  If appellate courts affirm the law, it will surely end up in the Supreme Court. But given the new “semi-liberal” Roberts court, which would have to reject the stare decisis of Roe v. Wade to change its decision, I’m not as worried about this as I used to be.

h/t: Ken

Federal appeals court overturns a restrictive abortion law in Ohio

October 14, 2019 • 10:45 am

According to the article below in the Cincinnati Enquirer (click on screenshot), a three-judge panel of the federal Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals (not the whole court) overturned by a vote of 2-1 a law passed in 2017 that blocked any abortions of fetuses diagnosed with Down syndrome, regardless of term. The State is appealing the decision to the full court. I’m not sure how a subset of the court has the right to overturn laws, but what do I know?

You can see the entire bill here. It stipulates the following:

No person shall purposely perform or induce or attempt to perform or induce an abortion on a pregnant woman if the person has knowledge that the pregnant woman is seeking the abortion , in whole or in part, because of any of the following:

(1) A test result indicating Down syndrome in an unborn child ;

(2) A prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome in an unborn child;

(3) Any other reason to believe that an unborn child has Down syndrome .

(C) Whoever violates division (B) of this section is guilty of performing or attempting to perform an abortion that was being sought because of Down syndrome, a felony of the fourth degree .

(D) The state medical board shall revoke a physician’s license to practice medicine in this state if the physician violates division (B) of this section.

(E) Any physician who violates division (B) of this section is liable in a civil action for compensatory and exemplary damages and reasonable attorney’s fees to any person, or the representative of the estate of any person, who sustains injury, death, or loss to person or property as the result of the performance or inducement or the attempted performance or inducement of the abortion. In any action under this division, the court also may award any injunctive or other equitable relief that the court considers appropriate.

(F) A pregnant woman on whom an abortion is performed or induced or attempted to be performed or induced in violation of division (B) of this section is not guilty of violating division (B) of this section or of attempting to commit, conspiring to commit, or complicity in committing a violation of division (B) of this section.

Note that the woman herself isn’t punished—only the physician, which is weird but certainly effective in stopping abortion of Down-syndrome babies. As far as I can see, the law was never implemented, as it was blocked by a single Federal judge until the three-panel decision a few days ago. (The panel has two Democratic judges and one Republican one; I’m guessing that the Republican was the dissenting vote.)

This bill is almost certainly unconstitutional, as it goes even father than Roe v. Wade, which prohibited states from banning abortions during the first trimester, but allowed them to restrict abortions somewhat during the second trimester and to prohibit them entirely during the third trimester. This bill doesn’t specify which trimester, but appears to prohibit abortions at any time if the woman knows that the fetus has Down syndrome. (That syndrome, by the way, comes from the acquisition in the fetus of an extra 21st chromosome, so the genome has three copies instead of two.)

What the lawmakers intended was to prevent “discrimination” against fetuses that had Down syndrome, because it constituted “social bias against a vulnerable group”. Presumably that rationale could be used to ban abortions if the fetus had any condition that would allow it to live if brought to term, regardless of the quality of that life. But such restrictions make little sense if healthy fetuses are allowed to be aborted, and so the law violates Roe v. Wade.

For a condition like Down syndrome, one should, in my view, allow abortion right up to birth, for it’s the mother (and father) who would have to take care of a child who, while it could live a substantial time, is also a substantial burden. In fact, I think that all abortions should be legal up to birth, even if the fetus could be viable if birth were induced or the fetus removed from the mother prematurely. But I digress.

As states are busy trying to restrict abortion any way they can, using “minority group discrimination” to prevent early-term abortions is not a strategy that will fly. In fact, the law was blocked early on by that one federal judge because “of the likelihood that if there were a full trial, the abortion providers would prevail.”

But we all know that the present Supreme Court —a very conservative one—will at some point revisit Roe v. Wade, and although the Supreme Court has a respect for precedent, it’s not an absolute respect. Further, if Ruth Bader Ginsburg leaves the court during a Republican Presidency, all bets are off.

h/t: Ken

Heather Hastie on abortion

July 19, 2019 • 9:30 am

Today Heather Hastie has a long and informative post on her website Heather’s Homilies. Click on the screenshot to read it:

If you want to get up to speed on the abortion debates (and antiabortion laws) currently roiling the U.S., you’ll find everything you need to know on this post. Heather concentrates on how Trump and the Republican party are dismantling women’s access to abortion, a trend that both she and I strongly decry.

I’ll give just one excerpt. Really, this post is must reading for all Americans and those who don’t know how a Constitutional right is being insidiously eroded in the U.S.:

The Myth of “Pro-Life”

Those who oppose abortion say they are doing so to save the lives of all the babies who would have been born if there was no abortion. This is absolute codswallop. The stupidity of it perhaps makes me even angrier than the attack on women’s rights, That’s because of what the truth really is.

Making abortion illegal does NOT mean no more abortions. What it means is:

1.Women being forced by desperation into breaking the law.

2. Women DYING from what is a simple medical procedure when carried out by a properly trained medical professional.

3. More women, especially poor women, suffering long-term medical complications.

4. More women being trapped in poverty.

5. More children suffering because their parent/parents have more children than they can look after financially, physically, emotionally, or mentally.

6. People, especially women, being trapped in unfulfilling (or even abusive) relationships because couples stay together, “for the sake of the child/ren.”

7. Places like Planned Parenthood forced to close. That means a lack of information about, and access to, contraception as well as other healthcare needs. It also means women who don’t have an abortion, which is most of their clients, lose access to healthcare.

Making Abortion Illegal Increases the Number of Abortions

But most of all, the evidence is that making abortion illegal does NOT reduce the number of abortions. The US’s Guttmacher Institute produced a comprehensive study: Abortion Worldwide 2017 (pdf here). It states:

Abortions occur as frequently in the two most-restrictive categories of countries (banned outright or allowed only to save the woman’s life) as in the least-restrictive category (allowed without restriction as to reason)—37 and 34 per 1,000 women, respectively.

Yes, you read that correctly. There are more abortions where it is illegal or heavily restricted than where it’s freely available.

And a tee-shirt she shows:

Retaining abortion rights through legislation

May 18, 2019 • 10:15 am

I wish I’d thought of this, but I didn’t think hard enough. While the Supreme Court can overturn state laws banning abortion because they’re unconstitutional (Roe v. Wade was decided on the grounds that abortion violated the right to privacy embodied in the Fourteenth Amendment’s due process clause), I don’t think the Supreme Court can overturn federal laws legalizing abortion. What bit of the Constitution could they use to do that? Well, I’m not a lawyer, but Elizabeth Warren, as recounted in Andrew Sullivan’s column this week, has proposed putting the specifications of Roe v. Wade (conventionally legal abortions during the first trimester) into a law, and a federal law can’t be overturned by the states.  Click on the screenshot to read (the other two items are the mendacious pardons handed out by Donald Trump and Game of Thrones, a show I’ve never watched and in which I have no interest.

Sullivan argues that on many issues, like interracial and gay marriage, the Court has led public opinion, with liberal approbation growing after the court legalized these once-controversial practices. But public approval for abortion rights hasn’t budged since Roe v. Wade; the good news is that public sentiment is pro-choice and, if anything, that is growing:

Roe was decided in 1973. Unlike many other progressive Court decisions, this one didn’t budge public opinion. In 1975, two years after Roe, some 22 percent favored a total ban on abortion in a Gallup poll; today that number is … 18 percent. Back then, 54 percent favored a middle ground: keeping the procedure legal under restricted circumstances. Now it’s 50 percent. Twenty-one percent believed in 1975 that abortion should be legal in every circumstance; today that number is 29 percent.

So yes, there has been some change, with a small shift toward public support for abortion rights.

Sullivan recounts his own conflict about abortions, one shared by Christopher Hitchens. He’s personally opposed to it (he calls it a “grave evil”, drawing on his Catholicism), but sees it as a public good: that is, society is better off letting women make the choice. And he argues, as I have, that it’s a losing proposition to argue for “choice” by saying “women have a right to an abortion because it’s their own body”.  Talk of rights won’t budge those who see abortion as murder, and so we have, and will always have, an impasse, especially with believers. When you assert that something is a “right”, you have to defend that right, and I’d prefer the pro-choice people to lay out their arguments for their views rather than declare abortion a “right.”

I happen to think that abortion should be allowed by a woman’s choice up to birth, as any line drawn will necessarily be arbitrary, and my own feeling is that fetuses don’t even begin to be sentient until they’re born,—at which time they can be adopted. Others will draw lines at other places, as most of them have. Sullivan mentions the laws in Europe—both Germany and Denmark don’t allow abortion after 12 weeks—and those seem even more arbitrary to me.

Sulivan on the impasse:

I can see why the court acted, although I think it made a big mistake. Abortion involves two fundamental and, in this case, directly conflicting American commitments: to life and liberty. We hold this truth to be self-evident: that life matters. We should affirm it always. And I have yet to read a single argument that clearly delineates with any objective authority when a human life, once initiated, becomes a human person. It’s an invisible line that is devilishly hard to draw. So although I have no doubt that a fertilized zygote is human life, I just can’t see that life the way I see a toddler or someone in their 80s. But I can grasp its basic humanness. To deny this reality seems to me to miss one key aspect of the debate.

At the same time, this is about the mother’s body. And in our ownership of our physical body lies our inviolability under the Constitution. We all have a natural right to our own bodies — and if we do not, then we have no natural right to anything, and America’s promise is a lie. The integrity of women’s bodies is therefore a core principle, inferentially buried in the Constitution. The right to life, in this case, is literally, physically, inside the bounds of liberty, i.e. within a woman’s body.

That’s my belief, after a lifetime of trying to think about this subject. And this is a particularly agonizing conclusion because the bodies involved are those of only half of humanity, women. This is not dispositive, but it behooves men to defer at least in part to the convictions of women who are in this predicament, or could be. For a gay man like me, this is doubly true. A certain humility is due.

I’m all for federal law saying something like “no state can restrict abortions before X weeks of pregnancy is over”, and yes, the American public does support Roe v. Wade in general. But would Congress support such a bill? I don’t think it could get through a Republican Senate, and surely Trump‚ or any Republican President, would veto it. But we can always hope for change a year from November.

This is sensible (is Sullivan still a conservative?):

. . . there was a reason that public opinion was moving in a pro-choice direction before Roe. The abstraction of ending abortion as a cause is far easier to support than the grim reality of enforcing an actual, tangible ban. And national legislation — or even a federalist outcome, where different states choose different options — would, in my view, highlight the government’s overreach in policing women’s bodies in the red states that would impose a restrictive regime, compared with the freedom in neighboring states. I think such a reality would move public opinion more firmly in a pro-choice position. It would certainly make the extremism of some of the anti-abortion laws crystal clear to voters. It’s astonishing to me, for example, that the Alabama law actually exempts fetuses used in IVF procedures. They don’t need to be protected, it appears. “The egg in the lab doesn’t apply. It’s not in a woman. She’s not pregnant,” explained a state senator in the debate. This is an enormous gift to pro-choicers. It really does prove that for some, this is not about human life. It’s about controlling women’s bodies. If that is revealed in a post-Roe era, the momentum will be with legal abortion.

I say this as someone deeply committed to the view that abortion is always a grave evil. I could not personally have anything to do with one. But I live in a pluralist society, I will never have to be involved in such a deeply personal decision, and I am equally dedicated to respecting the sincere convictions of my fellow citizens, and their unalienable right to sovereignty over their own bodies.

The bit about exempting IVF eggs from the law really is telling, isn’t it?


Alabama’s odious abortion bill

May 15, 2019 • 8:20 am

Most Americans have already heard this, so I’m just giving the news to those who haven’t, complaining about what happened, and offering you a chance to comment.

What happened, as the New York Times reports (click on screenshot below), is that the Alabama legislature passed a law that effectively ends all abortions in that state save in pregnancies that endanger the life of the mother. Pregnancies resulting from rape and incest must still be carried to term—a horrible stipulation.

From the paper:

The Alabama Senate approved a measure on Tuesday that would outlaw almost all abortions in the state, setting up a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade, the case that recognized a woman’s constitutional right to end a pregnancy.

The legislation bans abortions at every stage of pregnancy and criminalizes the procedure for doctors, who could be charged with felonies and face up to 99 years in prison. It includes an exception for cases when the mother’s life is at serious risk, but not for cases of rape or incest — a subject of fierce debate among lawmakers in recent days.

The House approved the measure — the most far-reaching effort in the nation this year to curb abortion rights — last month. It now moves to the desk of Gov. Kay Ivey, a Republican. Although the governor has not publicly committed to signing the legislation, many Republican lawmakers expect her support.

This is part of a wider national movement energized by the election of Trump, which empowered conservatives and right-wing Christians:

Other state measures to restrict abortion rights have advanced in the South and the Midwest this year and invited legal fights. Already, the governors of Georgia, Kentucky, Mississippi and Ohio have signed fetal heartbeat bills. [JAC: those are bills prohibiting abortion after the time when a fetal heartbeat appears.] And Arkansas moved up the cutoff point for legal abortions to 18 weeks of pregnancy, from 20 weeks.

CNN adds information about the vote, which was lopsided, even on the rape/incest stipulation:

After more than four hours of debate, the Republican-led Senate voted 25-6 to pass HB 314, which would slap doctors with up to 99 years in prison for performing an abortion. The Alabama House passed the bill earlier this month.
The law only allows exceptions “to avoid a serious health risk to the unborn child’s mother,” for ectopic pregnancy and if the “unborn child has a lethal anomaly.” Democrats re-introduced an amendment to exempt rape and incest victims, but the motion failed on an 11-21 vote.
Even for a conservative Republican state in the South, this is a reprehensible move. It is, of course, designed to be challenged, and it will be a brave Alabama doctor who will challenge it by performing an abortion in that state, risking life in prison if the Supreme Court upholds the law. For—make no mistake about it—this state law will go to the Supreme Court, who may affirm it, overturning Roe v. Wade. Then states will be free to make their own laws, and you know what that will do, especially in the South. Although that Court doesn’t like to reverse its previous decisions, this is one case where it may, for the Court is packed with conservative justices.
My own view, which I’ve expressed before, is that any woman who wants an abortion, right up to birth, should be permitted to have one, though that goes beyond the ruling of Roe v. Wade and its subsequent interpretation by courts. But in supporting Roe v. Wade, I’m on board with the majority of the American public, 73% of whom say that they don’t want that decision overturned. 

Grania points out that the decision, at least in Alabama, doesn’t seem to be so much a men vs. women issue (as is often claimed) rather than one of conservatives versus liberals:

And Matthew adds that the Alabama law is basically the same as the one holding sway in Northern Ireland, where abortions for rape and incest are also illegal, as well as every other abortion save those in which the pregnancy endangers the mother’s life.

I’ve always thought that yes, Trump will go away (perhaps next year), but his influence on the Supreme Court (and that of the Republican Senate) will remain for decades, with a conservative court that will interpret the law for ages to come. Let us hope that stare decisis will hold this time.

Andrew Sullivan comes out as pro-choice, including third-trimester abortions

March 1, 2019 • 11:45 am

In his column in this week’s New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan continues his shift to the Left. First, he takes up the problem of climate change and suggests that we need immediate intervention, suggesting we scale up the production of energy in nuclear power plants—something that, I believe, the Green New Deal abhors.

In the second part of his trifecta, he adds some ammunition to his indictment of the Vatican for its hypocrisy, damning homosexual activity while its high officials and cardinals engaged in homosexual activities with prostitutes and covered it up. (See my post from last week.)

It was Sullivan’s third bit, on abortion, that interested me the most. When he was younger, he opposed abortion, but he’s come around—and even farther than the Supreme Court or many liberals, and certainly farther than his Catholic Church. He thinks that there should be no restriction on abortions, all the while (like Hitchens) being personally opposed to them. This is an admirable stand: putting your own views second to those of the polity and, even more admirable, changing your mind in public—all out of empathy for others. There’s an interesting anecdote at the start of the segment (read it for yourselves), and then this ending.

And so I’m a little reticent on the subject; but if I were forced to offer the view I’ve come to take, it would be this awkward mess. I believe both that abortion is the taking of a human life, and that in a free society, rooted in property rights, an individual has complete autonomy over her body — autonomy which the state cannot violate. And so I used to believe that late-term abortion was particularly awful, as close to infanticide as one can get. One day, on my blog, I said as much, and then a flood of emails came in.

As this topic has come up again, I just want to add that, after reading and listening to the women who had had such abortions, whose testimonies are grueling and mind-expanding, I came to the conclusion that late-term abortions are actually the least objectionable. No woman waits till late in her third trimester to arbitrarily end her child’s life. Almost all of them were cases in which the child was desperately wanted, and in which some awful abnormality had emerged late in the pregnancy that essentially guaranteed that the child would be stillborn, or born and live only a short amount of time. For all the women involved, this was unimaginably painful. I urge you to take a second and read some of the accounts we posted at the Dish. They tore at my heart and soul and revealed just how abstract truths can become tangible agonies, once you see what is really at stake.

There is nothing to celebrate about such horrible choices, which is why I found lighting up One World Trade Center in pink to commemorate their full legalization under the Reproductive Health Act in New York State deeply inappropriate. But no one — no one — should have any say in that moment but the mother and her physician. Every case is unique. Every case is heartrending. And although I find much of the rhetoric on the far left on this subject too insouciant and glib about the profound moral dimensions of abortion, the slick and easy accusations from the right about “child killing” are simply inexcusable. I used to think that way. The women who actually went through such experiences changed my mind. They’ll change yours too.

See you next Friday.

I will, Andrew. And good on you, mate. Is it churlish of me to mention that you’ve parted ways with Catholicism in almost every possible direction, and yet you’re still a Catholic. If you must remain religious, what about becoming a Reform Jew, about as close to atheism as you can get?

h/t: Simon

“Ballooning” crab spiders spin silk parachutes, and take off after testing the wind with their legs

June 17, 2018 • 10:00 am

A new study in PLoS Biology by Moonsung Cho et al. (free pdf here; reference below) uncovers some of the mysteries of how spiders (in this case crab spiders) balloon. “Ballooning” is an amazing form of spider dispersal. The spiders, usually very young ones, climb up on some high spot like a blade of grass or a twig, and then emit long strands of silk from their spinnerets on the abdomen; those strands then catch the wind and carry the spiderlets for long distances—even hundreds of miles.

Why do they do this? There are a number of reasons mentioned by Cho et al. including:

  1. Reducing cannibalism by fellow spiderlings
  2. Reducing competition for local resources
  3. Dispersing to new and more favorable sites
  4. Searching for mates and food

According to the authors, ballooning spiders have traveled hundreds of kilometers this way, colonizing distant “oceanic” (volcanic) islands, and have even been seen as high as 4.5 km above sea level.

Here’s what ballooning looks like (this Nat. Geo. video mentions the new results):

Despite this well known phenomenon, a number of questions remained. How do they know if the wind is right? What kind of “sail” do they produce, and how do they do it?

The PLOS biology paper is long, and I’ll summarize just a few interesting results: these were taken from observations in nature, from wind-tunnel experiments, and from outdoor experiments in which spiders were put atop artificial platforms that emitted a powder that showed the wind speed and direction.

First, the spiders actually test the wind conditions before they take off by raising one or two front legs into the air—just like humans test the wind direction by wetting a finger and raising it. They keep the legs up for about 6-8 seconds, thereby seeing if conditions are right for takeoff. If they are—and that means the winds are less than about 3 meters per second—they then turn their body around, get on “tiptoe”, raising their butts into the air, and emit a series of silken threads, several meters long, to form a triangular parachute. Here’s a figure from the paper showing the wind-testing, body rotation, and tiptoe posture. (All captions come from the original paper.)

(From paper): Sequence of active sensing motion with front leg (leg I) (negative images). (A) The spider first senses the condition of the wind current only through sensory hairs on its legs. (B) Then, if the condition seemed appropriate, the spider sensed more actively by raising leg I and keeping this pose for 8 sec. (C) If the spider decided to balloon, it altered its posture. (D) The spider rotated its body in the direction of the wind and assumed tiptoe posture.\

While the spider is standing on its blade of grass or leaf, it anchors itself to the substrate with a “drag line”, which is then passively severed after the spun “balloon” carries them away. The drag line not only anchors them firmly (they do this normally), but keeps them from blowing away before they’ve spun a sufficiently large parachute.

Below you can see the triangular shape of the balloon, spun on the tiptoe posture. The chute is several meters long and so light that it can take the spider long distances even with fairly gentle winds.

Three new facts about ballooning were uncovered. First, the crab spider does not evaluate the wind condition passively, but actively by raising 1 of its legs I. Second, this adult ballooner anchors its drag lines on the platform not only during its rafting takeoff but also during tiptoe takeoff. Third, the crab spider postures all its legs outward and stretched, when airborne, not only at the takeoff moment but also during the gliding phase.

One mystery discussed by the authors, and shown in the supplementary figure below, is that while ballooning the spiders keep their legs outstretched. That would seem to be aerodynamically inefficient. Wouldn’t it be better to curl up?

I have no answer here, but perhaps adjustment of body shape can help the spider “decide” where to land. It’s still not clear whether the spider has any say where it winds up, in terms of deciding where to settle, or just passively touches down when the wind abates.  Clearly many spiders die when their balloons put them in the water or unfavorable habitat (of course spiders often have huge broods), but for this behavior to evolve by natural selection, the reproductive advantage of ballooning must exceed the costs of accidental death as well as the costs of staying put (getting eaten by your siblings, competing for food, etc.).

See how the keep their legs stretched out when flying?

Spiders’ posture in takeoff and flight. (A, B) An anchored line was found during a tiptoe takeoff. As soon as spiders were airborne, they stretched the legs outward. (C) To ensure the behavior of outstretched legs during flight, the pose of a spider was observed during its gliding phase. (D) The spider kept its legs outstretched.

There is a lot of information in the paper about the nature of the silk used to make the balloons, but I suspect you, like me, would find this less interesting. The coolest part is the description of how the spider does this, especially their testing of wind direction and speed by raising their legs into the air. That wasn’t known before, and I find it amazing.

Here’s a video, put out by the magazine Science, that describes the paper’s results. I’ve put it here at the end because if you watched it you might not want to read any further!


h/t: Jon


Cho M, Neubauer P, Fahrenson C, and Rechenberg I. 2018.  An observational study of ballooning in large spiders: Nanoscale multifibers enable large spiders’ soaring flight 
PLOS Biology 16(6): e2004405.