Wednesday, 25 February 2015

The three-parent baby panic


To be more measured and less hysterical, the House of Commons and the House of Lords in Britain have passed amendments to legislation that will pave the way for fertility clinics to use a process during IVF called mitochondrial donation. Babies conceived this way would have biological material from three different people: a mother, a father and a female donor. The baby would have 99.8% of its genetic material from the mother and father and the remaining 0.2% would come from the donor. The donor would be anonymous and have no parental rights concerning the child.

Of course there are the inevitable howls about "designer babies", about how the inevitable outcome is vain parents greedily creating some sort of dystopian but very attractive master race. The reality is that the rules will apply to a very narrow range of genetic conditions. With careful regulation, this will help eliminate mitochondrial diseases that make people's lives horrific, as well as saving on healthcare costs. This is a good thing.

The 50 concern troll MEPs who wrote a letter calling on the European Commission to look into Britain's supposed "lack of compliance" can, with respect, bugger off. Likewise, the group of Italian MPs who urged the House of Lords to vote down the proposals can also take a long walk off a short pier.

What is particularly vile is the 50 MEPs claiming this amendment will "violate the fundamental standards of human dignity and integrity of the person." I urge these people to tell muscular dystrophy patients that their lifelong pain and drastically shortened life expectancy is essential to their human dignity. Perhaps sufferers of Leber hereditary optic neuropathy simply need to embrace the loss of eyesight from a young age for the good of their personal integrity. Maybe Leigh syndrome patients could learn to enjoy the dignity of respiratory failure and seizures.

Newcastle University's Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research has been instrumental in making this amazing medical breakthrough a reality. The research team, led by Professor Mary Herbert and Profesor Doug Turnbull, should be a source of immense pride for the north-east of England and for Britain as a whole.

Photography by Anna Langova

Wednesday, 18 February 2015

The unseemly spectacle of disgruntled men piggybacking on the Natalie Allman case

I genuinely had no idea that the law was such an ass. To discover that a judge can order a woman who was treated so violently by her ex-partner that she could have died from a slashed throat to write to that same abuser three times a year to update him on their kids came as an appalling shock.

But that is what has happened here in the UK in 2015. In a country that I think is generally a very good place to be a woman. In 2011, Natalie Allman was tortured for seven hours by Jason Hughes. They had broken up but he was still living in the same house while Hughes was looking for a new place to live. He had a drinking problem - a litre of vodka or six bottles of cider a day was not unusual, according to court records. Allman called off their engagement two months before their planned wedding day and had started seeing someone else. Hughes, it would seem, did not take this news well.

He tried to smother her with a pillow. He battered her face was battered with a dumb-bell. He slashed her throat in front of their twin sons. The blade narrowly missed a major artery. Her throat had to be surgically rebuilt.

Hughes has been jailed for nine years for malicious wounding with intent to cause grievous bodily harm. Not attempted murder. His defence was that he wanted to make her look ugly to other men, not to kill her. Astoundingly, this worked. One would think that if you wanted to make someone look ugly, you'd slash their face but according to the judge, this was not the case.

One would think that the nine-year jail sentence would be the end of it. With Hughes locked away for nine years, Allman could get on with her life, safe in the knowledge that he could not harm her or her sons. And she did just that. In 2012, she gave birth to a son with her new partner, Wayne Young. They are still together. This should be the happy ending Allman deserves.

But in January 2014, Hughes applied for a Residence and Contact Order. He asked for six letters a year and phone calls from the twins at Christmas and on their birthday. After spending £3,000 on legal fees to fight this absurd demand, a court ruled that she should send up-to-date photos and three letters a year to update Hughes on their health, education and emotional development. The court gave permission for Hughes to send the twins Christmas and birthday cards and a letter at the start of each school year.

If Allman does not comply with this order, she could be found in contempt of court and jailed. She is the victim here. We should not have a situation in a civilised country where a victim of horrific domestic abuse faces prison for refusing to stay in touch with her abuser. That is the sort of morally repugnant rubbish you'd expect to find in societies where women are made to marry their rapists, not in Britain.

This is a story about the importance of justice for domestic violence victims. And it is a story about the importance of balancing parental rights with compassion, commonsense and the protection of children. Hughes should have lost all rights as a father when he attacked his sons' mother in front of them.

But this story did not stop a few trolls from coming out of the woodwork. A particularly unseemly character on the Metro newspaper's Facebook page hailed Hughes as a hero for wronged men and condemned Allman as a cheating woman and a bad mother who was asking for it. No. She was not. To make excuses for such brutal violence against a woman you've never met on the grounds of adultery, either real or imagined, is to live in the dark ages. Or modern day Saudi Arabia, where people can still be beheaded for adultery. In Britain, beheadings for adultery are associated with Henry VIII and he has not been on the throne for quite a while now.

The cesspit of foolishness that is the Daily Mail comments section featured academic giants criticising her for finding a new partner and having another baby so soon after her relationship with Hughes. I'm sorry. I didn't realise there was a required period of celibacy for women after the end of a bad relationship.

And then someone popped up in my Twitter notifications to tell me "the law is a farce here". No argument from me so far but then there was the kicker: "Good fathers get deprived because of bitter mothers but evil men get rights."

Yes, I know, there are indeed cases where men miss out on access to their kids for no good reason. This is not a good thing. Obviously. But to tack this issue on to this story is appalling. The Natalie Allman case is not about a bitter mother. It is about inexcusable domestic violence and how the laws in a supposedly civilised country can fail victims so comprehensively.

If Natalie Allman speaking out to the media gives domestic violence victims, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, the confidence to come forward, to bring their attackers to justice, that is a good thing. Like rape, we will never know the full extent of domestic violence because it is not always reported. But if we expect to walk down the street without being assaulted, the same should apply in our homes, in our most intimate relationships.

And if Natalie Allman speaking out can help bring about a change in the law so that men like Jason Hughes are not able to be a grim spectre in the lives of their victims from behind bars, that would also be a good outcome.

Let Natalie Allman have her moment without slut-shaming her for her life choices or turning this into a chance to slag off "bitter mothers". She is not a fame whore. She just wants justice.

Image by Sabine Sauermaul

Wednesday, 4 February 2015

An open letter to anti-vaxxers

Dear anti-vaxxers,

I know you think you mean well. You probably even fancy yourselves as nice people. Indeed, if I came across you as I was going about my business, we would probably have a perfectly pleasant interaction as long as the exchange didn't involve a discussion on vaccination.

But your willful ignorance, your desperation for a conspiracy theory, your refusal to listen to a world of science from incredibly smart people who do not actually have vested big pharma interests, and your obscene, privileged posturing make you and your ilk terrible people. Sorry, but by refusing to understand and accept the importance of herd immunity in eliminating horrible diseases, you are being dreadful.

By promoting your selfish, anti-science agenda, you are putting vulnerable people at risk. Children with cancer. Anyone with a compromised immune system. The elderly. Newborn babies. People with allergies to vaccine ingredients. Children who are in between vaccinations, such as the series of injections for whooping cough. A story I wrote as a young reporter back in 1996 was about a child who contracted whooping cough in between shots in rural Australia. The sound of her little lungs struggling with a cough that sounded like someone choking a puppy is not something I ever want to hear again.

Do you feel good about yourself now?

You are pontificating from a place of modern privilege. You probably don't remember the awful era when entire families were wiped out by measles. Or when polio forced children into iron lungs. Or when the horrific menace of smallpox killed millions of people. Or when there were no rubella vaccinations to prevent children being born with life-altering conditions? In the last week, people in Britain have been moved to donate more than £300,000 to help a 67-year-old man who was mugged outside his house. His name is Alan Barnes and he suffers from serious sight, growth and bone problems because his mother contracted rubella when she was pregnant in 1947. But ensuring girls are vaccinated against rubella prevents these conditions being passed on during pregnancy.

It is because of vaccination that you probably don't know anyone who has suffered with polio or smallpox. It is because of vaccination that measles hasn't killed any children in your street. It is because of vaccination that child mortality is low in the developed world. Vaccination has made the world a better place.

But diseases such as measles and whooping cough are making a comeback that is about as welcome as a new Dennis Waterman album.

Spare me your lies about vaccination causing autism. It doesn't. And even if there was a connection, which there isn't, it is appalling that you'd rather have a dead child than an autistic child.

Spare me your citing of the Merck case as a reason to not vaccinate. I know that Merck overstated the efficacy of vaccines. But Merck is not the sole manufacturer of vaccines. And this case does not mean all vaccines should be banned. Your own exaggerations are like calling for all cars to be banned because one car manufacturer had a recall.

Spare me your whining about the evils of big pharma. I am not an idiot. I know drug companies make money from vaccines. But so many eminent scientists who are not on big pharma's payroll have conducted study after independent study on vaccine safety and risks (and yes, I acknowledge that, like any medicine, there are risks but the benefits far outweigh any risks). Immunologists and epidemiologists know what they are doing. They know that while you are freaking out about formaldehyde, they know exactly how much is required to make a safe vaccine and they know that not all vaccines contain formaldehyde and they know there is more formaldehyde in a goddamn pear.

Spare me your "I didn't vaccinate and my kids are perfectly healthy!" rhetoric. You fail to comprehend causation and correlation. And if your anti-vax dogma stays with them into adulthood, they may not be perfectly healthy if they travel to a country where travel jabs are highly recommended and they contract something delightful such as typhoid or cholera. Perhaps if your kids go to places where diseases that are largely unheard of in your backyard - and contract those diseases for themselves - they might learn the error of your ways. But, Christ, what a way to learn that lesson.

Spare me your "But if your kids are vaccinated, why are you worried about my unvaccinated kids?" crap. Please at least try and understand herd immunity instead of being content to wallow in the arrogance of ignorance.

Do I come across as a bit rude? Do you feel as if I am shaming you for not vaccinating? Good. I am not here to spare your precious snowflake feelings because you are ignoring people of science who are way smarter than you or I, and you are instead devoted to a movement popularised by bloody Jenny McCarthy, and fuelled by stupid websites such as Natural Health News, Health Impact News and Mercola.

If explaining the importance of vaccinations to you through the lessons of science and history is not going to work on you, then I have no qualms about making you feel ashamed. If parents of vaccinated kids don't want your kids around, perhaps you can take the time you would have spent ferrying them to playdates to think about what you are doing to your kids and to other people.

You should be seen as a pariah, as someone who is on the wrong side of science and history.

Yours sincerely,

Georgia Lewis, a successfully vaccinated member of society since 1976.

Sunday, 1 February 2015

Colleen McCullough: Probably more successful than the dead obituary writer

"Colleen McCullough, Australia's bestselling author, was a charmer. Plain of feature and certainly overweight, she was, nevertheless, a woman of wit and warmth."

The daft obituary then went on to quote her from an interview in which she said: "I've never been into clothes or figure and the interesting thing is I never had any trouble attracting men."

This was for a woman who not only wrote multiple books, including The Thorn Birds which sold more than 30 million copies worldwide, but was also an accomplished neuroscientist.

I'd give a slow hand clap to the writer of this obituary that appeared in The Australian this week but apparently he died six years ago. Right. So once an obituary is written and kept on file at a newspaper, it is simply impossible for it to be edited in any way, shape or form? Rather than existing as an electronic file, an obituary is carved into a stone tablet and cannot be updated, am I correct? A dead obituary writer's words must be respected at all costs even if he has written a load of tripe?

There was a lame attempt to make amends yesterday with a respectful piece in the Murdoch-owned paper from the former premier of the state of New South Wales, Bob Carr, but the #MyOzObit hashtag on Twitter had already made a mockery of the stupid original obituary.

And that is the best way to respond to such sexist bullfuckery - with mockery and humour.  My own #MyOzObit might be something like "She was only 5'1" and had a flat nose, but Georgia still managed to marry an actual man, albeit at the age of 34." or "Georgia was allowed to compile fashion pages for women's magazines between 1999 and 2004 despite her inability to walk in high heels."

I wouldn't call for a ban on The Australian because I am not a "ban-all-the-things!" feminist. If anything, it's good to know exactly how this newspaper views accomplished women, that it will still reduce them to their weight, appearance and ability to attract men, even in death. Let's have that idiocy right out there where we can see it so we know what we're dealing with and we know to set the time machine back to 1950.

But I will use my freedom of speech to call out the double standard.

If you don't think there is anything sexist about the obituary, just imagine for a moment if The Australian treated male writers the same way. Perhaps The Australian's new obituary writer is currently beavering away on the following pieces:

"Despite going quite bald and sporting some unfortunate facial hair over the years, Salman Rushdie punched above his weight when he married Padma Lakshi."

"Martin Amis had a face that looks a bit like a battered potato but this did not impede his ability to be twice listed for the Booker Prize."

"If he sidled up to you in a smoky bar, you'd probably make your excuses and leave. If you were drunk enough to take him home, you'd probably find yourself wishing that Will Self, with his gangly arms and sunken chest, would spend less time writing novels and more time pumping iron."

These words, I confidently predict, will not make it into any obituary of any of these three men anywhere in the world. Indeed, in life, these men are not subjected to criticism about physical appearance in the same way that the very-much-still-alive Hilary Mantel is, disappointingly by women as well as men who didn't like what she said about Kate Middleton or just couldn't finish Wolf Hall.

Similarly, historian David Starkey with his demented owl demeanour does not cop the same vitriol that the brilliant Mary Beard has received. When people criticise Starkey, they tend to criticise his views rather than his appearance. However, Mary Beard dealt with one of her trolls brilliantly by meeting him, educating him and ultimately writing him a reference.

And I suspect that Colleen McCullough would have roared with laughter at her obituary in The Australian and been deeply touched and amused by the #MyOzObit hashtag, just as Mary Beard deals with her trolls with wit, charm and humour, while never downplaying the serious implications of sexism.

She acknowledges that the vile abuse is "meant to hurt and wound" and could very well "put many women off appearing in public, contributing to public debate." When you seek to reduce a woman to her appearance or her personal life, to downplay her achievements, to silence her, you need to ask yourself why you feel the need to do so. Perhaps it might behoove you to go and achieve a few things of your own instead.