Tough Questions: On Banning Circumcision

Iceland is currently discussing a bill that would ban infant male circumcision and, if it succeeds, it will become the first country in the European Union to do so. I always knew that I would eventually comment on this most touchy of subjects, and in light of this current news I guess now is as good a time as any.

I am aware that for many people, this is not a “tough question” at all. Many have very strong opinions on the subject one way or another, whereas I find myself quite torn on the topic. I am also aware that, as someone who does not own a penis my opinions on the subject are somewhat less valid than someone who has more skin in the game, so to speak, but my current dilemma is mostly based on the science and the fact that both sides often exaggerate or twist it to fit their own notion.

Before we continue yes, I made a circumcision pun. I totally meant it. I apologize… kind of. Now let’s move on.

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Teaching Boys About Consent

We have often heard women saying, when talking about victim blaming and “rape prevention” pamphlets, that you should be teaching men not to rape rather than teaching women what to wear. Of course, to men who do not have any inclination to rape anybody, that kind of statement can come off as condescending. The idea is that obviously men know that they’re not supposed to rape women, but the ones that do are not following the rules, duh, it’s not like they are going to suddenly say “ooohhh! I didn’t know it was against the law! Shit my bad!” and suddenly stop being a monster.

While I get that knee-jerk reaction, it is also unfortunately a very simplistic reaction to what seems to be a simplistic proposal, but what is actually an important concept which is not given enough merit. But hey, don’t take my word for it, see this case study in Nairobi.


The highlights: in this community, where they have begun an active educational campaign about consent, rape was reduced by 50%, and bystanders successfully intervened and stopped assaults 75% of the time.

That’s amazing! Even I am shocked at what a giant impact this had is such a short period of time.

Of course, when people say “teach boys not to rape” they don’t mean wagging their fingers at young boys, tell them not to sexually assault their female peers, and then going back to their morning newspaper. It is much bigger than that.

This campaign is about tackling the problem on multiple fronts. It is about teaching girls about having self confidence, and self worth, and that they have agency over their bodies and their lives. It is about teaching boys different perspectives, and making them think about sex and sexual assault from a healthier angle. It is about reaching equality and mutual respect.

In short, it is about changing culture for the better. And it can work wonders.

More Vegan Controversy Out Of Italy

Given the recent news regarding the potential criminalization of vegan parenting in Italy, I was hoping to get my father’s take on the whole thing when he called me last night. “By the way Dad”, I said, “Have you heard about this controversy in Italy about veganism?”

“Oh”, he replied, “So you heard about the thing with the dogs in Maccarese?”

Uhm, no. What?

So it turns out, there is another, entirely different vegan controversy going on in my country, and at the small beach town right outside of Rome where I usually spend my holidays at that. Apparently, the owner of a certain dog-friendly beach club is in a battle with the local animal rights group. The reason is he is a devout vegan, and he is so convinced in his veganism that he is also feeding his dogs an entirely vegan diet. The animal rights group says no, you can’t do that, and are trying to either convince him to start feeding his dogs properly, or to take them away from him. If your lifestyle, they say, makes it impossible to properly take care of your pet, whether because you live in a tiny apartment in the city, don’t have the money or time to care for them, or because you can’t bring yourself to purchase any animal products, you lose your right to care for that animal.

So, putting aside the sending vegan parents to jail for a minute, can we all at least agree on no vegan cats or dogs?

It is true that dogs have evolved a lot alongside humans, and thus have picked up a few mutations that have allowed them to shift from a carnivorous diet to a more omnivorous one compared to wolves. This means that dogs will survive longer on a vegan diet than cats will, who have remained obligate carnivores. However, dogs are still carnivores. They still have a very high protein requirement, a very low coefficient of fermentation (i.e. the indicator of how well they can digest plant matter), and they require nutrients which are not found in plant matter like our old favorite vitamin B12. Dogs fed on a vegan diet will be lethargic, develop fur problems, and will not survive long without very careful and artificial tinkering with their food, and even then they will likely not live healthily. A kitten fed on a vegan diet will die before adulthood. Animal abuse is punishable by law in Italy, and people who do not care for their pets appropriately will have them removed from their custody and, if the abuse is severe, they will face criminal charges. Once again, this animal rights group is seeking to demonstrate that malnutrition qualifies as animal neglect and thus are trying to remove this man’s dogs from him.

Personally, I find his position extremely ironic. Killing animals is wrong, for any reason, no matter how humanely. In fact, humans are capable of killing animals in a far more humane way than any predator will, which usually terrifies and disembowels its prey before eating it. But the slow torture of his “beloved” pets? That’s fine. That’s not unethical.

If you can’t bring yourself to contribute to the meat, egg or dairy industry in any way, get a rabbit. Or a guinea pig perhaps. I think that owning a pet is a privilege, not a right, and no one should keep any animal if they are not capable of giving them the comfort they deserve. I adore pigmy marmosets, for example, but I would never keep them as pets, because I cannot provide them with the quality of life that they would have in the wild. I also love dogs, but I do not have the space, time or home life stability necessary to ensure their happiness. I do not contribute to the seahorse pet trade either, despite their beauty. I find it incredibly selfish when humans try to twist their pets into something they are not just to satisfy their own egos, whether it is the creation of severely unhealthy breeds of dogs, ripping the claws and canines out of kittens because you don’t want them to scratch up your precious furniture (also illegal in Italy, by the way), chop off the tail and ears from your pitbull because fashion, keep a boa constrictor in a tiny tank because you’re so macho, or feeding carnivores a freaking vegan diet.

So, shelving the jail time for vegan parents for a moment. Can we all agree on this, for the time being? Stop feeding carnivores a vegan diet?

Tough Questions: Protecting the Elderly, or Violation of Privacy?

Many of you who are following the discussions about police brutality in the United States are aware of the call for mandatory body cams on police officers. While this alone will probably do little to counter the apparently abysmal quality of police training, which leads so many officers to commit murder with little to no provocation whatsoever, it is generally agreed that body cams would be a good idea, at least to obtain unbiased evidence of exactly what happened during an altercation which results in someone being severely injured or killed. While policemen are on duty and in public they have no expectation of privacy, and thus body cams would not violate their rights in this regard.

However, recent news out of Australia is bringing up the question of surveillance in a different, and potentially far more complicated context. It involves surveillance in elderly homes, where patients are at particular risk of abuse as they are often too frail to fight back, or are unable to communicate what is being done to them to people outside of the facility.

A woman, suspicious of how her father was being treated in his nursing home in Adelaide, installed a hidden camera in his room, and caught this on tape. I warn you, the video contains abuse of an elderly man.


The nurse is, quite clearly, attempting to smother the man in his bed. The statistics mentioned in the video are also startling, claiming that 1 in 20 elderly people in Australia are victims of abuse. This is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed in the country.

However, the proposed solution of mandatory CCTV cameras in nursing homes brings with it far more concerns regarding privacy than any discussion relating to police body cams. In this particular scenario, I’m sure that the woman who managed to record this was very glad she did so, and I expect that the nurse in question was fired and arrested for her behavior. However, the privacy concerns around keeping elderly people in nursing homes under constant surveillance are troubling.

First of all, who would be monitoring these CCTV feeds? If the answer is security personnel within the nursing home itself, it is very likely that cases of abuse will be found and go unreported. Secondly, while the nurses and staff are simply employees who can go home at the end of their shifts, the residents live there. That is their home, and CCTV cameras would be monitoring them in their homes 24/7, which would surely qualify as a violation of privacy. Who wants to spend their last years on this Earth being recorded and monitored every minute of every day, like a rat in a behavioral experiment? Not to mention the fact that those cameras would be picking up medical visits, sponge baths, and a whole lot of other activities that most people would rather not be watched by complete strangers.

Nor is it completely feasible to ask for the consent of those who would be recorded. Some people who live in nursing homes would be competent to give that consent, but many are not. Also, many of these nursing homes have shared rooms, and what if the residents have different opinions on whether or not they should be recorded? Also, why should someone have to choose between completely giving up their privacy and opening themselves up to potential abuse and neglect?

On the other hand, this apparently rampant elder abuse needs to be addressed. I cannot find it in me to fault that woman for secretly recording this footage when she began to suspect her father was being mistreated. Illegal or not, I probably would have done the same thing, because the instinct to protect the people we love will often outweigh our respect for the law in many circumstances, for many people. She clearly felt powerless to address her concerns, and recording him in secret was the only way she could think of to confront the situation.

There is no denying that there should be more accountability and transparency when it comes to the treatment of the elderly in nursing homes, but how does one address this without serious violations of privacy? Right now, I have no way to answer that question. The only thing I can say is, something needs to be done. It is time to give the elderly, as well as the disabled and the mentally ill a voice, to treat them with with respect as human beings, not as disposable burdens on society. It is this mentality towards these groups of people which makes them so vulnerable to abuse in the first place.


That’s Not Real… Right?

By now, we’ve all heard about the Brock Turner rape case, or at least most of us have. We’ve heard of his very lenient sentence after he was literally caught in the middle of raping an unconscious woman behind a dumpster. We’ve heard that his father flippantly referred to the rape as “20 minutes of action” which caused his son to lose his love for steak and chips.

Please disregard that noise you’re hearing right now. It’s just the world’s tiniest violin playing.

However, despite all of that, I don’t want to believe that this facebook page is real. It’s called Brock Turner Family Support, and this is the lovely caption it comes with.

Such complete disregard for human dignity as displayed by many of the commenters on this page is appalling. Do you have any idea how devastating an impact words can have on a person? Can you muster even an ounce of compassion for the anguish Brock and his family are going through? I seriously doubt most of you even have the capacity for empathy. How would you feel if it were your son having such horrible things said about him? You should be ashamed of yourselves!

Your words may sting, but no amount of vitriol can bring us down to your level. WE ARE ‪#‎BROCKSTRONG‬

Yes, we are aware how devastating words can be. Like, how someone could dismiss rape as “20 minutes of action”, for instance. That’s pretty devastating. So great, we agree! Oh, wait, that’s not what you were referring to, was it?

A quick look at the page, and I’ve never seen anything so victim-blamey in my life. So much so I’m putting it below the fold.

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Book Review: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks

Note: This is a book review from the old blog, as I have no time to read books anymore, but it is one of my favorite books of all time, so I wanted to repost it here.

Anyone who has studied biology has heard of HeLa cells. They are the most important cell line we have, they have been the subject of countless experiments and have been invaluable to modern biology andHenrietta_Lacks_(1920-1951) medicine. This is the story of the woman from whom these cells came, the only woman that can be said to have reached anything close to immortality. I was expecting the book to be interesting if a little dry and perhaps tedious in some parts. From the first page, however, I realized that I was sorely mistaken.

This book really tells four stories, all expertly wrapped up into one novel. The first is who was Henrietta Lacks? What was she like, what did she like to do? The second story is a history of medical research and HeLa cells, what they did for biology and what medical research was like before the 1950s. The third is the journalist’s own story, how she found Henrietta’s family and her struggle to reach out to them. The fourth is one about bioethics, and it poses a very interesting question: is it ethical to take someone’s cells, and sometimes profit from them, without the donor’s knowledge or consent? Do we own the tissue that is surgically removed from us, even if it is usually discarded? Do we have a right to say what happens to those cells or tissues once we voluntarily have them removed from our bodies?

Starting from the beginning, as soon as I read the introductory remarks I knew it was the book for me.

This is a work of nonfiction. No names have been changed, no characters invented, no events fabricated. (…) Anything written in the first person in Deborah Lacks’s voice is a quote of her speaking, edited for length and occasionally for clarity. (…) Whenever possible I conducted multiple interviews with multiple sources to ensure accuracy.

This is my kind of book, and the kind I hope to write myself some day. No embellishment, no omissions, just straight fact. I liked it already, and the rest did not disappoint.

Other than being a fantastic read, there were a few parts of the book that really opened my eyes, for better or for worse. As a scientist I used to get very annoyed with people like my mother who viewed everything and anything that comes out of a lab with a veil of mistrust, with a subconscious feeling that scientists are amoral robotic entities that never consider the ethical ramifications of their actions. I used to think that this was largely due to the horrific way that scientists have been portrayed both by the media, in movies and by the screams and shouts of people that do not understand the science they are publicly blasting, like creationists or anti-vaxxers. After reading this book, however, I realized how stupid I was to think that. I have had the good fortune of coming into an international scientific community where bioethics is an extremely important part in everything we do. There are committees that make sure that every experiment you conduct is by the book. If you are using animals in your research, you have to demonstrate that you are using the minimum possible number of animals to get a statistically significant result, that you are housing the animals in the most optimal way possible and that you are never causing the animals unnecessary harm or suffering. If you are conducting clinical trials you have to demonstrate that you have the patients’ full understanding and consent, that they know they can drop out of the study at any time, that you do not admit patients that are at high risk of dying during the study if they are placed in the control group, that all patients including the ones that received the placebo get treated at the end of the study if the drug has proved to be effective, that the drug does not present high risk of extreme side effects (as demonstrated by animal tests and previous clinical trials) and that any side effect you suspect the drug might have is communicated to the patients. This is the state of biomedical research as of now, but in my grandmother and mother’s day none of this existed, and the scientific community is still feeling the ramifications of the terrible reputation it earned itself in those days. Whether it be experimenting on poor African Americans causing them to die horribly despite having the means to cure them or injecting patients with cancer cells without their consent, I was horrified at what was deemed acceptable to these researchers that I can only describe as sociopaths. I do not know a single person that would ever defend the experiments that were so casually and callously performed only 60 years ago, and that made me ask myself: Is it that even then they were very rare but they became infamous due to their horrific deeds, or is it that the new bioethical systems in place make the scientific community less attractive to a god-complexed fame-hungry sociopath, who thus chooses a different career path?

The aspect of this that really made me think is the issue of the ethical implications of tissue research. The people that argue against “rights” for tissue donors made two important points: 1. That the person from whom the cells or tissues are taken are not actually doing anything, it is the scientists that put in all the hard work to culture them, modify them, experiment on them and find all the optimal ways to do these things. These cells could thus be considered their “intellectual property”, they are the ones that invested the money to work on them and thus they are the ones who should benefit from any reward. 2. Informed consent is one thing, but when you start saying “I want my cells to be used in this research but not in that other research but not if the research might be used for that purpose” it can mean a halt in research, because it all becomes exceedingly complicated.

I get both points, but it is definitely not as simple as that. Admittedly HeLa cells are a special case. They are sold all over the world, and you’d be hard pressed to find a cellular biology lab that does not have vials of HeLa cells in their freezers. There is a lot of money made on selling them, and yet Henrietta Lacks’s family lives in extreme poverty. Her daughter, Deborah Lacks, sums up my feelings on this:

Truth be told, I can’t get mad at science, because it help people live, and I’d be a mess without it. I’m a walking drugstore! I can’t say nuthin bad about science, but I won’t lie, I would like some health insurance so I don’t got to pay all that money for drugs my mother’s cells probably helped make.

I can’t ignore how the injustice this situation makes me feel, that while the minds that made HeLa cells possible should undoubtedly get the credit for what they accomplished, Henrietta’s family should not be unable to pay for their own medical expenses.

The second point that is brought up is one that I understand, although I do not think it needs to be that complicated. I think that over bureaucratizing cell research could cripple biomedical research, it does not have to be an all-or-nothing debate.

I definitely believe in informed consent, and I don’t think that it needs to be complicated. Personally, I think that the bioethical problem can be summed up with two forms, two consent measures. 1. Consent to use your cells or tissues in research, whatever the research might be, without going into the details of what research is acceptable and what research is not. The patient should know what those research possibilities are and decide whether or not they accept them, in their entirety. 2. Consent to profit from said cells, which is only something that crops up in a handful of cases. At this stage, you can stipulate a base percentage that goes to the patient – not one that is negotiable, but one that is stipulated by law, say 15%. The patient gives consent that his or her cells can be used for financial gain with 15% of that gain going to them, yes or no.

Read the book then tell me what you think. Is it too simplistic, still too complicated, or at least far better than the total lack of legislation we have in this regard at the moment?

Thoughts On: Body Farms, Anatomy Museums and Consent

Note: old post, slightly edited

This is one of those cases in which for a long time I had to really think about why I felt the way I feel about a certain thing. So here’s the deal: I am not opposed to art exhibits or museums which display human bodies, I was brought to an anatomy museum as a freshman in high school, and while it was a little disturbing for a 13-14 year old (particularly the severely malformed fetuses and the poster book of a sliced pregnant woman), I do not oppose their existence. Of course I am also fully aware that body farms and autopsies performed for medical training are invaluable to our society and even if I were opposed to the former, the latter is undeniably essential. Here’s my one caveat though: the people who are used have to have consented to this while they were alive. I am firm on this, and I did not go to one of the body exhibits in Dublin because I was told that the majority of the bodies used were unclaimed as opposed to voluntarily donated. Why, though, do I feel this way?

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Conflating Morality With Legality

Note: post from the old blog
I started thinking about this topic when I was discussing the legality of C-sections in Italy with a colleague of mine. I was unaware of this, but apparently it is technically illegal in Italy for a woman to give birth via C-section unless there is a legitimate medical reason for doing so. Given the rather loose language that entails, and the fact that there are far more C-sections being performed in the South compared to Northern Italian states, leads us to believe that if a woman really wants to have one, she can find a doctor who will be willing to schedule her one. The point of disagreement between us was based on whether or not this law should exist at all.

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The Murky Waters of Mocking Ideas and Armchair Diagnosing

As skeptics who are active on the internet, mocking silly ideas about creationism, anti-vaxxers and general woo are par for the course. Many of us are ruthless in this mocking, often stemming from a feeling of indignation that people could try to promote ignorance and impede others from educating themselves on the facts. We like to tell ourselves that we’re mocking ideas, and not people but let’s face it, we also mock the people who promote these silly ideas. We have all, at some point, thrown around words like “stupid”, “ignorant” or “idiot” when describing people like B.o.B and his flat-earther tweets, or Ray Comfort and his banana video.

On the other hand, armchair diagnosing is generally accepted as something one should never do. There is, of course, very good reason for this. It often comes from a place of malice, trying to marginalize another person. Even those who do not do it out of malice are usually being condescending, arrogant in thinking that they can diagnose someone just because they watched a psych TV show, or attributing pathology to perfectly normal behavior and reactions. Generally speaking no one benefits when lay people throw around terms like “schizophrenic”,  “bi-polar” or even, simply, “I think that person has a mental issue”. So, let’s not speculate about people’s mental health status through the interwebs, right?

However, as much as I would like to deny it, I also find myself doing this, on occasion. What follows is not an attempt to justify or make excuses for armchair diagnosing, but rather to discuss one reason why some people do it that is often ignored.

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