Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Bill to ban 'mom, dad' from texts advances

New California law would remove sex-specific terms from books, mandate pro-homosexual lessons

A bill requiring students to learn about the contributions homosexuals have made to society and that would remove sex-specific terms such as "mom" and "dad" from textbooks has passed another hurdle on the way to becoming the law of the land in California. Having already been approved by the state's Senate Judiciary Committee, SB 1437, which would mandate grades 1-12 buy books "accurately" portraying "the sexual diversity of our society," got the nod yesterday of the Senate Education Committee.

The bill also requires students hear history lessons on "the contributions of people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender to the economic, political, and social development of California and the United States of America." "This bill is the most extreme effort thus far to transform our public schools into institutions of indoctrination that disregard all notions of the traditional family unit," said Karen England, executive director of Capitol Resource Institute. "SB 1437 seeks to eliminate all 'stereotypes' of the traditional family so that young children are brainwashed into believing that families with moms and dads are irrelevant."

SB 1437 not only affects textbooks and instructional materials for kindergarten and grades 1-12, it also affects all school-sponsored activities. "School-sponsored activities include everything from cheerleading and sports activities to the prom," said England. "Under SB 1437 school districts would likely be prohibited from having a 'prom king and queen' because that would show bias based on gender and sexual orientation." England also says the bill would likely do away with dress codes and would force the accommodation of transsexuals on girl-specific or boy-specific sports teams. England says the measure amounts to unneeded social experimentation. "SB 1437 disregards the religious and moral convictions of parents and students and will result in reverse discrimination," she said.

Sponsored by Democratic Sen. Sheila Kuehl - a lesbian actress best known for playing Zelda in "The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis" in the 1960s - the legislation would add "gender" (actual or perceived) and "sexual orientation" to the law that prohibits California public schools from having textbooks, teaching materials, instruction or "school-sponsored activities" that reflect adversely upon people based on characteristics like race, creed and handicap.

"We've been working since 1995 to try to improve the climate in schools for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender kids, as well as those kids who are just thought to be gay, because there is an enormous amount of harassment and discrimination at stake," Kuehl explained. "Teaching materials mostly contain negative or adverse views of us, and that's when they mention us at all." "In textbooks, it's as if there's no gay people in California at all, so forget about it," she added.


Good sense from Australia's High Court

The High Court today ruled against two severely disabled people who claimed they should not have been born. In what's been termed a case of "wrongful life," the judges foundthe pair did not have a right to mount a case for negligence against their mothers' doctors. The case was launched by two disabled people, Sydney woman Alexia Harriton, 25, and Keeden Waller, five. Ms Harriton was born deaf, blind, physically and mentally disabled and was not expected to live more than six months. She needs 24-hour care. She claimed Dr Paul Stephens negligently failed to diagnose the disease rubella early in her mother Olga's pregnancy and did not advise there was a very high risk of having a child with congenital abnormalities. Olga Harriton said that she would have terminated the pregnancy had she received proper advice.

Keeden, an IVF baby, through his parents also claimed wrongful life after inheriting the clotting disorder AT3 from his father. He was born with brain damage, suffers from cerebral palsy, has uncontrolled seizures and requires constant care. Had the Wallers known of this risk, they said they would have deferred IVF until such time that safe methods were available or terminated the pregnancy.

In the NSW Supreme Court, Justice Timothy Studdert dismissed both damages claims, holding they had no cause of action. The Court of Appeal, by majority, also dismissed each appeal. The action on behalf of Alexia and Keeden then turned to the High Court. By a six to one majority, the High Court judges today dismissed each appeal, ruling that a cause of action in negligence required each to show damage had been suffered and the doctors had a duty of care to avoid that damage. They found no legally recognisable damage - loss, deprivation or detriment caused by an alleged breach of duty - could be shown.

The judges held that comparing a life with non-existence for the purposes of proving actual damage was impossible as it could not be determined that the children's lives represented a loss, deprivation or detriment, compared with non-existence. In the lead judgment, Justice Susan Crennan said physical damage such as a broken leg was within the common experience of judges who had no difficulty assessing the claimed loss. But it was altogether more difficult when the assessment had to be made between present disability and non-existence. "There is no present field of human learning or discourse, including philosophy and theology, which would allow a person experiential access to non-existence, whether it is called pre-existence or afterlife," she said. ``There is no practical possibility of a court (or jury) ever apprehending or evaluating, or receiving proof of, the actual loss or damage as claimed by the appellant. It cannot be determined in what sense Alexia Harriton's life with disabilities represents a loss, deprivation or detriment compared with non-existence."

Justice Michael Kirby, the sole dissenting voice, said denying the existence of wrongful life actions erected an immunity around health care providers whose negligence resulted in a child, who would not otherwise have existed, being born into a life of suffering. "The law should not approve a course which would afford such an immunity and which would offer no legal deterrent to professional carelessness or even professional irresponsibility," he said.


Happiness and its discontents

The BBC's "The Happiness Formula" fails to interrogate whether happiness is an appropriate social goal

The critical flaw of the BBC's new six-part documentary on happiness was apparent from the start (1). It assumed that happiness should be the key goal for society and then set out to illustrate the contention. There is widespread agreement, at least in the developed world, that happiness is more important than wealth - but that is all the more reason, especially at the beginning of such a documentary, to question the premise.

Ancient Greece was the starting point for happiness, according to the programme. Evidently 2,500 years ago Aristotle suggested that happiness should be the ultimate goal for humanity. Unfortunately there was no exploration of what Aristotle meant by happiness or why he thought it was so important. Instead, in an annoying breathless style that characterised the whole episode, it quickly jumped from one topic to another. After Aristotle we were told that neuroscientists have reached the stage where they can measure happiness. 'And if that's right it changes everything,' said Mark Easton's voiceover. It was not made clear why.

Then there was Midge Ure - a 1980s rock singer and songwriter for those who do not remember. Evidently making loads of money with Ultravox did not make him happy and he eventually went broke. However, getting involved in Band Aid with Bob Geldof, in response to famine in Ethiopia, evidently gave meaning to his life.

Next came rats. Neuroscientists - back to them again - are busy investigating rodent happiness. It turns out that 'like them [rats that is, not neuroscientists] we're wired to seek pleasure'. There was no acknowledgement of the potential problems of drawing sweeping conclusions about human behaviour from examining rats.

This was only about half way through the 30-minute episode. The rest included nuns in Milwaukee (happy ones live longer), Lord Layard (Britain's official happiness guru), Bhutan (the Himalayan kingdom where happiness is an official national goal), an adviser to the prime minister, the presenter driving a Ferrari, and lifeboat volunteers (volunteering makes people happy). Next week, we were told, the series will look at monkeys.

Told in this way the programme may sound ridiculous, but there are serious problems with the happiness consensus. The idea that happiness should be a primary social goal is actually sinister. It ignores the fact that society has typically progressed when people feel restless and discontent. Humans did not stop when they invented the wheel. They attached it to vehicles and eventually added an internal combustion engine. Social changes too have come about when people felt unhappy with their present lot. Rats may feel pleasure as a physical sensation but they are not capable of anything comparable to human achievement.

If any of the key questions raised or alluded to in the programme were subject to serious scrutiny an alternative viewpoint might have come across. Even given the limitations of television as a medium this should be possible. Perhaps there will be more depth in later episodes, but I doubt it.

For example, the episode referred in passing to happiness being a social goal 200 years ago. Indeed it is true, as serious commentators have argued, that the pursuit of happiness was a central goal of the eighteenth-century Enlightenment. But a key passage on this in the American declaration of independence of 1776, a prominent Enlightenment document, is worth examining in a little detail:

'We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.'

Several points should be clear from a careful reading of Thomas Jefferson's document. First, it talks about the pursuit of happiness rather than just happiness. For America's Founding Fathers the idea of the pursuit of happiness was linked to the idea of progress more generally. It was seen as part of a package - along with life and liberty among other virtues - that individuals would strive for rather than just a physical sensation. Today, in contrast, the concept of social progress is widely viewed with suspicion and sometimes outright hostility.

Second, the constitution talks about a right - rather that a duty - to pursue happiness. If individuals wanted to strive for social progress they were free to do so. In Britain today, on the other hand, happiness is an official social goal. The documentary pointed out that every local authority in England and Wales has a duty to promote wellbeing. And the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) - which most people might assume is about farmers - says its 'core purpose is to improve the current and future quality of life'. Lord Layard, the happiness guru, wants to go a step further with the recruitment of 10,000 extra therapists to make Britons happy.

Another topic that should be examined in more detail is Bhutan - which is the subject of a future episode - and its official goal of Gross National Happiness (GNH). The BBC documentary stated, almost with glee, that tobacco, advertising and advertising hoardings are banned in the Himalayan kingdom. And such an august organ as the New York Times has even welcomed the use of GNH in Bhutan.

Yet an examination of some of the basic economic statistics on Bhutan portrays a different picture. It only has a life expectancy at birth of 61 for men and 64 for women compared with Britain, for example, where the respective figures are 76 and 81. Relative wealth can help raise life expectancy. Also the infant mortality rate is 70 per thousand live births (that is, seven per cent of infants die before the age of five), 19 per cent of children are malnourished and the adult literacy rate is only 47 per cent.

Despite the enormous potential for hydroelectric power in such a mountainous region 65 per cent of the population lacks electricity. Many of the population are subsistence farmers who live in small isolated communities. These indicators have generally improved in recent years - although from a terribly low base - but ironically this is the result of relatively vibrant economic growth.

Ultimately the fact that happiness levels in Britain are not increasing, despite being so much wealthier than Bhutan, is in some ways a sign of hope. For the level of discontent provides at least the potential to improve things still further. Rats may feel pleasure but only human beings have the ability to transform their environment and themselves for the better


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