Monday, January 28, 2013


I’ll bet no one’s values are mutually consistent. Sooner or later, we run up against a contradiction that makes us feel nuts, like wanting to enjoy gravity-fed water while living on a hilltop, or traveling five-star first-class and expecting to meet the colorful locals. I don’t mind these disparities, actually. In fact, I rather enjoy them as abiding proof of our fallibility.

That’s what Catholic Health Initiatives, a nonprofit that runs some 170 health facilities in 17 states, recently bumped up against. According to the Colorado Independent, a thirty-one-year-old, seven-months pregnant woman arrived in extremis at one of CHI’s hospitals in 2006. To make a tragic story short, she and her twin fetuses died. Her husband filed a wrongful death lawsuit against CHI, claiming a timely caesarean delivery would have at least saved the babies.

The lead defendant, Catholic Health Initiatives, is committed to the Church’s position that the unborn are full-fledged people, with all rights pertaining. Colorado state law, though, defines “person” as someone born alive. 

So here’s where things get sticky. Attorney Jason Langley, representing CHI, argued that the wrongful death claims are invalid since the fetuses, having not been born, weren’t legally people. That is, Catholic Health Initiatives refutes the dogma that fetuses are people from conception onward when that would mean losing a lawsuit.

The Fremont County District Court ruled in CHI’s favor. The plaintiffs appealed, and now the case is heading to the Colorado Supreme Court. I find myself wanting to point a finger here, but I’d probably do better to search out and revise my own hypocrisies. 

Wednesday, January 23, 2013


Such a flap! You’re probably aware of the New York City ordinance banning soda servings larger than sixteen ounces. Mayor Bloomberg introduced it in an attempt to reduce incidence of obesity and type two diabetes, especially among young people.

Since then, opponents have raised a slew of objections, mainly along the lines of nanny government. Now comes a particularly creative protest: the rule is racist. The NAACP's New York state branch and the Hispanic Federation have joined beverage makers and sellers in trying to stop the rule from taking effect March 12. A hearing is set Wednesday. Critics say the soda rule will unduly harm minority businesses and "freedom of choice in low-income communities."

When I first heard of Bloomberg’s quest, I assumed he was doing it simply to publicize the hazards of massive soft drink ingestion, since the rule is clearly unenforceable: if a sixteen-ounce Coke doesn’t satisfy you, all you need to do is buy another.

The issue made me wonder why we feel change needs to come from legislation rather than from grass-roots education. Why do we feel it’s up to government to improve our diets or clean our air or decelerate climate change? Considering this nation was founded by hyperdedicated activists, how have we become so passive?

The harm we suffer from imbibing ten gallons of high-fructose syrupy soft drinks annually is negligible compared to our astonishing passivity. If Mayor Bloomberg is serious about improving New Yorkers’ health, he’d recommend they get up off their La-Z-Boys and get active in their communities.

Friday, January 11, 2013


“Sit on my bed and talk to me,” Ms. Keochareon said. 

The students hesitated, saying they had been taught not to do that, to prevent transmission of germs. What they knew of nursing in hospitals — “I’m here to take your vitals, give you your medicine, okay, bye,” was different, after all.

Martha Keochareon, a 59-year-old woman who’d graduated from Holyoke Community College nursing school in 1993, was dying from pancreatic cancer. She asked her alma mater if they’d be interested in having their students see her for intimate exploration of the dying process. They were indeed interested, and Ms. Keochareon was delighted to teach the students they sent.

One instructor observed that when students eventually ran out of asking her medical questions, they practiced what she called “therapeutic communication” instead. “The way we’ve learned in school and haven’t applied enough is just saying, ‘I’m glad to be with you; you must be frustrated; you look uncomfortable.’ And let the patient just talk and talk and talk, and see where they’re at.”

Ms. Keochareon died December 29, having pioneered a profound teaching tool. I hope this sort of heart-to-heart teaching spreads.

Thursday, January 10, 2013


James Watson, who won a Nobel Prize for co-discovering the double-helix structure of DNA, is no lightweight in molecular biology circles. Yesterday he criticized our decades-old “war on cancer” as “…not likely to produce the truly breakthrough drugs that we now so desperately need.” You can find a full report at

Watson takes particular aim at antioxidants. Though these are regarded by many as shields against cancer, some researchers feel the opposite may be the case, so don’t fill up on acai berries and dark chocolate just yet. “The time has come,” Watson said, “to seriously ask whether antioxidant use much more likely causes than prevents cancer.”

As interesting and important as that issue is, it distracts us from something at least equally fruitful, identifying and acting on environmental carcinogens. In his book The Emperor of All Maladies, winner of a 2011 Pulitzer Prize, oncologist Siddhartha Mukherjee emphasizes repeatedly that the most effective and safest treatment for cancer is prevention. We know today that we inhabit a virtual sea of known and possible carcinogens in our food and water, the air we breathe, and pollutants we allow. Powerful business interests, though, try to distract us from doing anything about them.

Energy companies would rather we didn’t know what chemicals are in the high-pressure slurry with which they fracture (“frack”) underground faults to extract natural gas. Plastic companies resist attempts to ban bisphenol A (BPA) from drink containers and food cans. Monsanto, Dow, and their corporate cousins successfully invested millions in California’s recent election to defeat Proposition 37, which would simply have mandated labeling genetically modified foods as such.

Let me suggest again that we consider Canada’s approach to this issue. Under its “precautionary principle,” dubious chemicals are banned, period. By contrast, America affords chemicals the same status as criminal defendants—innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Our trouble is that it’s hard to discern the precise action of a molecule among hundreds of thousands of other possible culprits, and which exerts its toxic effect slowly, over years or decades.

So while we do our best to seek better treatments for existing cancer, we need to demand far more aggressive prevention measures, including our own smarter shopping and continual pressure on legislators.