Droning on from Obama to Trump

The deployment of unmanned aerial drones by the United States military and C.I.A. to execute alleged enemies of the U.S. is unethical, unconstitutional, and undermines its credibility as a source of global leadership, justice, and integrity. These drone missions threaten relations with international allies and must cease if the United States is to remain a respected leader in the global war on terror.

The use of unmanned combat aerial vehicles, known colloquially under the sinister guise of ‘drones,’ has more than tripled under the Obama administration. While no president wants to be responsible for the deaths of American soldiers, the unmanned drones that have replaced on-the-ground troops in many areas are neither capable of informed wartime decision-making nor precise execution. The result is that one in three people killed by a U.S. drone in Pakistan has been a civilian–a staggeringly high percentage of innocent victims from the military leading the so-called fight against terrorism.

This practice is bad for the countries with which the United States collaborates and is equally bad for the U.S. Drone attacks fuel anti-American sentiment and spark distrust for local governments and their law enforcement efforts. Deadly suicide bombings have increased following drone attacks, while the imprecise nature of the execution attempts has made their success questionable at best. Taliban leader Hakimullah Mehsud, for example, was reportedly killed multiple times by drone attacks due to the misinformation and inexactitude that prevails among drone operations.

The use of unmanned drones also marginalizes the role of United States soldiers. In many instances, Special Forces personnel are better equipped to deal with the available intelligence and unconventional war tactics in Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Iraq. Instead, they are replaced by remote control devices, which can neither react to immediate changes in theater nor make informed judgments during the course of the mission. While soldiers commit their lives to rigorous training and sacrifice, drone missions often rely on brute force, sloppily delivered and resulting in the collateral deaths of innocent civilians.

The fallout from drone executions has marred United States foreign policy among its allies. United Nations special rapporteur on extrajudicial killings, Philip Alston delivered a harsh judgment on drone attacks saying they present a “risk of developing a Playstation mentality to killing.” When it comes to the stress placed on servicemen and women piloting, the New York Times reports that drone pilots suffer the same PTDS and stress-related depression as soldiers on the ground.  Meanwhile, Pakistan, the country in which the majority of attacks are taking place, has publicly objected to the executions despite their complicity.

For his part, president-elect Donald Trump has vowed to continue using drones to execute alleged terrorists. Coupled with the rampant Islamophobia that characterized the rhetoric of his campaign, drone expert Jameel Jaffer fears the outlook is bleak without a significant public backlash against use of combat drones in the Middle East.

Unmanned drone killings are neither ethical nor effective and are jeopardizing the status of the United States as a credible world leader in the global fight against terrorism. In order to salvage the damage done by these machines, the U.S. must significantly reduce its use of unmanned drones in combat roles and begin working with its few remaining allies in the Middle East to rebuild the trust it has lost from the terror its drones have inflicted.

– Tyler

 

 

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Outside the ballot box

When federal election results are being tallied on the evening of November 8th, the votes of nearly 6 million American citizens will be missing as a result of systematic disenfranchising laws that disqualify ex-convicts from voting. The majority of states in the U.S. enforce some penal restrictions on voting: In the most egregious cases, Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky permanently bar all people with felony convictions from voting while Alabama, Mississippi, Arizona, Nevada, Wyoming, and Tennessee permanently disenfranchise at least some ex-criminals. As you can see in this interactive state-by-state map of disenfranchising laws, the only states that do not restrict voting for ex-offenders are Vermont and Maine.

The practical implications of these laws are problematic for representative democracy, while the ethical grounds on which they stand call into question why they were imposed in the first place. The biggest and most obvious problem is that for those who have been convicted and are no longer incarcerated, being stripped of voting rights provides another barrier to reintegration and civic engagement already made difficult by challenges that exist in obtaining gainful employment, stable housing, and societal acceptance.

Proponents of disenfranchising laws argue that ex-criminals have forfeited their rights by engaging in activity that runs contrary to the goals of a lawfully-functioning society. Let’s put aside for a moment that not all those who are convicted and serve time are even guilty of the crimes for which they’ve been charged. This is a big problem, but we’ll assume that most who are sentenced are guilty and even so we can dismantle the arguments behind the practice of disenfranchising.

The next logical problem here is that no state strips voting rights for all types of illegal activity so instead we have a system in which some crimes lead to disenfranchisement while others don’t, even in instances when the alleged threat to the public good is nearly identical. Proponents would like to believe severity is commensurate with consequences, but the arbitrary nature of the justice system means that isn’t necessarily the case. For instance, a driver in Iowa cited thrice for operating a vehicle under the influence receives a felony sentence and is permanently barred from voting even after release. An equally unsafe driver who similarly violates traffic laws and is charged with reckless endangerment or excessive speeding while sober will not face the same disenfranchisement despite that their behavior is a similar threat to the safety of the public and can reasonably be assumed to result in the same outcome (property damage, injury or loss of life, etc).

This arbitrary lineation and disenfranchisement violates the bioethical principle of justice, described by Stanford Medical as the concept of fair distribution of resources (or in this case, consequences) among society. In the case of the drunk drivers versus reckless drivers, states make their best guess at what constitutes impairment, with the majority thresholds falling around a .08 blood alcohol concentration (BAC). Our understanding of neurobiology, tolerance, toxicity and metabolism, however, recognizes that this is an inexact science and a nondrinker with an even lower BAC may be significantly impaired while someone with a higher tolerance is able to maintain homeostasis and normal functioning well over the .10 mark. This is an unfortunate inexactitude but realistically necessary as a preventive mechanism for deterring drunk driving.

However, the permanent disenfranchisement that happens for one but not the other makes no sense through the lens of the justice principle. It also makes no sense from a penal perspective, because disenfranchisement is unlikely to be an effective deterrent against such crimes since the consequences are often years in the future.

There are myriad reasons why a repealing of disenfranchisement laws results in a more just, equitable, and most importantly, democratic society. Permanent barring of voting is a counterproductive and oppressive practice that discourages reintegration and erects insurmountable barriers to representation that no free citizen should be without.

– Tyler

Automatic weapons and manual transmissions

With the horrifying mass shooting of 103 innocent people in Orlando still very fresh in our minds, gun violence and the rights of gun ownership are virtually all anyone with an opinion can talk about right now. While obviously salient at this juncture (especially given the legislative actions/inaction and epic Congressional sit-in that just took place), I predict that in the coming decades, it’s very possible we will be having a parallel conversation about driving cars.

Let’s look at this way: We are currently at roughly the same place with cars that we were 80 years ago with guns. They are both dangerous, lethal, and a leading cause of death. Yet, they are also a part of everyday life for commuters in the same way farmers, ranchers and sportsmen relied on them heavily (and to some extent still do) for their livelihood. Many have managed to do without either of them, but over time they have both become a part of the American pastime, whether that’s cruising through a windy road on a Sunday afternoon or making a trip to the firing range to hone skills and perhaps let off some steam.

But technology changes the utility of these contrivances. Where guns have become efficient to a point that their killing capacity can no longer be justified for civilian distribution, the development of safer and more efficient driverless cars will likely yield the same challenge for justifying human operation.

Right now we’re still basically in the “pre-driverless car” era. They exist in a nascent state, but problems abound. The New York Times reports engineers are still vexed with teaching driverless cars nuances of the road like potholes and speedbumps. So the vast majority of us are still better drivers than a computer system in a car. Chances are this will change, and the ability for cars to calculate conditions, speed, stopping times, and a host of other quantifiable relevant details combined with mechanical precision will mean a road full of driverless cars will be far safer than the human error that leads to tens of thousands of traffic fatalities each year. Less car accidents sounds great, right?

Given America’s love affair with driving automobiles, it’s going to be a rocky transition to that automated traffic flow if we even ever get there. You see, in the same way Americans believe it’s their right to own and operate killing machines like the AR-15 responsible for most of the deadliest mass shootings of the last five years, the liberty of driving a car is equally ingrained in the American psyche. Even though car accidents from human error amount to over 30,000 unnecessary deaths every year, there are still large segments of the population who enjoy driving far too much to give up the pastime without major pushback. Not unlike those who enjoy a pastime of shooting guns.

What this will mean is hard to say. It’s unclear at this time to what extent technology will advance and perhaps meet in the middle between safety and liberty. Can guns have an electronic killswitch that prevents them from being used for malicious purposes? Can cars assume control of driving only when it’s a real and present threat to the safety of others on the road? Will we need a driver’s lobby for those of us who still like the idea of pleasure driving just like the NRA for those who want to keep shooting their guns?

Perhaps we can reserve manually functioning cars and firearms for controlled environments and ban them in civilian life. Want to drive a car fast and recklessly? Go to a track and use theirs. Want to fire out a couple rounds of an automatic rifle? Go to the range and use theirs. Oh, you want the right to own and operate a deadly machine whenever you want? I guess that’s where the lawyers come in.

-Tyler

Access and allies

The Food and Drug Administration has revised the guidelines for a pill that induces abortion. The changes allow women to take the pill further into their pregnancy and reduced the number of required visits to the doctor. The pill, mifepristone has increased in use in recent years, and the debate over their use from anti-abortion leaders has heightened in parallel.

The new guidelines reduce the number of required visits from 3 to 2 and allow the medication to be taken up to 10 weeks into pregnancy, up 7. This has in fact been standard practice in most states as doctors have been following the new research and prescribing in line with that evidence under the common practice of off label use. Many states have passed laws to restrict the use of the pill since it was approved by the FDA.

These laws include requiring the pill to be administered by physicians rather than nurses or physician assistants, or requiring the prescribing doctor be present with the patient while the pill is taken which abortion rights activists point out as a strategy to block many women living in rural areas to receive the medication at all. Some states required that physicians follow the label instructions strictly, so the new language from the FDA could have a real impact.

In 2014, a mother of three in rural town Pennsylvania went to jail for ordering mifepristone online to induce a miscarriage for her 16 year old daughter. The nearest clinic to their home was about 75 miles away and  Pennsylvania requires women seeking abortions to get counseling and wait 24 hours before they can return for the procedure. A first-trimester abortion is typically between $300 and $600 and that does not include the added costs of time off work and travel. To order this pill cost this family $45.  This mother was charged with a felony for offering medical consultation about abortion without license and three misdemeanors for endangering the welfare of a child, dispensing drugs without being a pharmacist and assault.

Bioethicists, when discussing abortion, can often get mired in questions on personhood and the moral status of a fetus. Legal questions usually cover the rights granted to a fetus. This post takes for granted that abortion is part of medical practice and care for women in the United States and asks us to weigh the risks of the use of this pill without direct presence of a physician versus the large need for resources related to abortion for those who are lower income, or living in rural areas far from available clinics. It also brings to light the systemic criminal treatment of those who seek this abortions.

-Grace

G.M.O-K?

Is knowledge of genetically-modified organisms more persuasive than fear based on their overall lack of transparency?  That’s the question that seems to be lost on the lobbying coalition working to defeat efforts like those in Vermont to mandate the labeling of genetically modified food. The corporate processed-food lobby led by Monsanto and Kellogg’s claims consumers “may demand companies remove bioengineered ingredients/G.M.O.s from products…lead[ing] to extreme disruptions in the nation’s food supply chain that could take many years to overcome.”

There are so many things wrong with the assertions made by the opponents of the labeling movement it’s hard to know where to start. But let’s begin with the egregious assumptions made by an outfit called “John Dunham and Associates Economic Research Firm” (Dunham being the former senior economist with tobacco conglomerate Philip Morris). Here’s an excerpt of their “research”:

Given consumers’ lack of science-based information on the subject, they may demand companies remove bioengineered ingredients/G.M.O.s from products, according to the study. It is possible 100% of products eventually would be reformulated to be non-bioengineered.

“This would lead to extreme disruptions in the nation’s food supply chain that could take many years to overcome,” the study said.

If only a small percentage of food manufacturers were able to switch to non-bioengineered ingredients, major costs still would be associated with the Vermont law.

“Companies would be forced to segregate G.M.O. and non-G.M.O. grains, for example, and document them as such, leading to higher wholesaling costs,” the study said. “Food manufacturers would be required to produce multiple versions of products, which would increase overall production costs as run-lengths would decrease. Also, a system with smaller volume sales of more product lines would lead to higher wholesaling costs as more trucks and equipment would be required to handle the smaller batches.”

The costs incurred by American food processors could lead to a 1.76% increase in average food prices nationwide in the first year and as much as 1.61% ongoing.

“These costs are incurred by consumers in every state and the District of Columbia and could be as high as $723 per household in the first year and $13,250 per household over the next 20 years, a cost which is highly dependent on the assumption that non-G.M.O. ingredients will continue to be expensive substitutes for G.M.O.-based products.”

 Wait, what? Did you just multiply $723 by 20 years and factor in slightly diminishing costs based on efficiency advancements in non-GMO cultivation? Why on earth would you use a hypothetical figure projected out for 20 years?! What relevance does that have in the 2016 debate? That “assumption” that non-GMO ingredients will continue to be expensive substitutes is—we might as well define it—an assumption that a) necessity will not drive innovation, b) consumer choice will work against companies that use GMOs and c) said companies will be unable to adapt to a business model that requires transparency. How sad of an assumption is that? No wonder they’re fighting against change.

Further opposition to mandated labeling is provided in a paper sponsored by the Corn Refiner’s Association (hmmm) wherein the authors claim “labeling would provide consumers with additional information but higher food prices would make consumers, especially low-income consumers, worse off.” This asserts that a) “worse off” would not include being better informed and b) consumers would not continue to choose genetically modified food. This is an interesting jump in logic, given that most people already eat genetically engineered food, despite that verified non-GMO alternatives are continuing to flourish.

Say you are a consumer (you are); and you really like Twinkies (you probably do); …is a label alerting you to the fact that the cornstarch has been genetically modified really going to change your behavior next time you’re craving that spongy cake-and-creamy goodness? Of course not. And those in favor of labeling have made it easy for food manufacturers to disclose by asking relatively little of them ranging from an asterisk, to a parenthesis to even a catch-all statement. That’s not too much to ask.

Having, I believe, thoroughly made my point about the reasonableness of mandating labeling, I’d like to point out that in my own consumer decisions and as a bioethicist, I am not in any way summarily against genetically modifying food. I believe the fear-based contention to GMOs has arisen largely due to the lack of transparency these labeling laws are striving to change. So, counterpoint food lobby: let people know what’s going on with their food, let them see it’s nothing to be afraid of, and maybe, just maybe, the anti-GMO hysteria will diminish. Win-win.

-Tyler

Zika fever pitch

With the Associated Press now reporting some 200 cases of Zika nationwide, concern about the spread and implications of the mosquito-borne virus has reached a new pinnacle this week. Adding to that, new reports on the severity of symptoms in certain cases is giving weight to the idea that Zika is among the most pressing concerns in public health since the eradication of Ebola from West Africa in January.

While solutions to the growing epidemic have varied, the ever-categorical Slate has suggested wiping mosquitoes off the face of the earth is a reasonable response. To be fair, it’s not just Slate, as a number of scientists are seriously considering if and how the rest of our shared ecosystem would suffer from a lack of what the Spanish call “little flies” (mosca being the word for fly and -ito being its diminutive suffix). Mike Turner, head of the department of infection and immunobiology at Wellcome Trust, an international charitable foundation “dedicated to improving health through science” is calling for a return to the notoriously banned DDT of Silent Spring infamy to eradicate the mosquito population.

Aside from the obvious and well-documented effects of DDT on bird populations and the human health consequences of pervasive use of an endocrine disruptor, here are three other reasons I think this should be at the very bottom of a list of possible solutions to the Zika problem:

  1. Mosquitos are not the source of Zika virus. Yes, they are its primary vector but taking the extraordinary measure of eradicating mosquitoes does not mean Zika cannot continue to be spread through sexual contact or even yet through an undiscovered vector.
  2. Only a specific genus of mosquito (aedes) is even a competent and capable carrier of Zika. There are some 4000 varieties of mosquitoes. There are far more tactful approaches on the horizon that don’t require eradication.
  3. It furthers the already nearly-ubiquitous idea that speciesist, anthropocentric solutions are viable options to public health concerns. While absolutists might argue that any bioengineering of ecosystems and their inhabitants represents this idea, eradication is the most extreme, pestilent form of this kind of outbreak resolution. It is the Donald Trump of contagion response, if you will.

– Tyler