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Weekly Pulse: Stem Cell Hell, Bad Eggs, and DIY Abortions

9:58 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, Media Consortium blogger

On Monday, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth ruled that all federally funded human embryonic stem cell (hESC) research is illegal, thereby throwing the scientific community into turmoil. The judge decided that any experiments on these cells is research "in which a human embryo is to be harmed or destroyed," and is therefore disqualified for federal funding under an obscure provision known as the Dickey Amendment. Researchers called the ruling "absolutely devastating."

The ruling flies in the face of science and logic. True, a human embryo must be destroyed in order to create a line of stem cells. However, once the line is established, the cells will keep dividing forever. In nature, stem cells have the potential to develop into any kind of specialized cell in the body. There are no guarantees, but in theory, stem cell research could lead to treatments for anything from severe burns to heart failure to blindness.

The lineage of stem cells

The first line of human embryonic stem cells was created in 1998. In 2001, President George W. Bush banned federal funds for research on stem cells created after Aug. 9, 2001. Even Bush acknowledged using old stem cell lines wasn’t destroying embryos. In 2009, President Barack Obama loosened the rules for funding human embryonic stem cell research. Under Obama’s rules, researchers can’t use federal funds to create new hESC lines, but they can study stem cell lines of any age, not just the ones created before 2001.

According to the judge’s logic, a scientist is destroying an embryo when she tests a drug on an embryonic stem cell that is the great-great-great-granddaughter of a cell that belonged to a 5-celled embryo that was destroyed in 1998. Hundreds of scientists all over the world might be working with cells from that embryo at this very moment. According to the judge, each of them is destroying an embryo that ceased to exist 12 years ago. So, every day, they all get up, go to work and destroy the same non-existent embryo? What happens when come back from a coffee break? Do they destroy it again?

Ignoring the facts

"We strongly disagree with the judge’s ruling because, by definition, embryos and stem cells are two entirely different organisms. Today’s ruling is the case of one judge ignoring the scientific fact that research on pluripotent stem cells is not the same as research on an embryo,” Rep. Diana DeGette (D-CO) said in a strongly-worded reaction to Monday’s ruling. DeGette is a longtime champion of stem cell research, according to Scot Kersgaard of the Colorado Independent.

Lynda Waddington of the Iowa Independent asked officials of at the University of Iowa, a center of excellence in stem cell research, how the ruling might affect their work. The officials declined to comment, saying that they were still reviewing the implications of the injunction. The Obama administration announced that it would appeal the judge’s ruling.

What’s next? Bioethicist Arthur Caplan told Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! that the only way to get hESC back on a firm legal footing would be to abolish the Dickey Amendment. Dickey needs to go, but the judge’s latest appeal to Dickey is extremely weak. The notion that studying a 1-day-old cell descended from an embryo destroyed 12 years ago is harming that embryo is absurd. Of course, getting rid of Dickey would also open the door for federal funds to create new stem cell lines, which would be a boon to society in its own right.

Bad eggs

Half a billion eggs have been recalled because they may be tainted with deadly salmonella bacteria. The eggs may have already sickened thousands of people. Democracy Now! reports that the entire batch can be traced to just two factory farms in Iowa, Hillandale Farms and Wright County Egg. This is the largest egg recall in U.S. history. Critics say the mass contamination exposes deeper failures in the U.S. food system.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly notes that Wright County Egg’s parent firm has a rap sheet of health, safety, and labor violations stretching back two decades. However, Benen argues, the problem is deeper than one poorly inspected operation.

After the outbreak, former FDA Commissioner William Hubbard admitted in an interview that the George W. Bush White House would not let the FDA impose tougher standards on the egg industry because the administration was "very hostile to regulation." If the Invisible Hand of the Market tries to make you breakfast, don’t eat it!

Back alley abortions are back

More women are inducing their own abortions with a drug called misoprostol, Robin Marty reports at RH Reality Check. Misoprostol, aka "Cytotec," is usually prescribed to treat ulcers. Doctors use it in combination with the so-called "abortion pill" RU-486 to induce chemical abortions, but only under controlled conditions.

Misoprostol is a prescription drug in the U.S., but it is available over the counter in many other countries. Some women misuse misoprostol that is prescribed for other conditions, some buy it on the black market, and some have families send it from overseas. Unsupervised misoprostol abortions are risky because about 10%-15% of the time, the drug will start the process but not finish the job. If that happens the woman is at risk for bleeding, infections, and other complications.

The anti-choice movement has campaigned for decades to throw obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions. The longstanding ban on federal funding for abortion means that many poor, uninsured women are stuck paying the costs of an abortion out of pocket. Even a few hundred dollars for the procedure and the cost of transportation to the nearest abortion clinic may be beyond the reach of many women. It’s not surprising that these women are taking matters into their own hands.

Thanks to the machinations of anti-choicers and the compromises of the Obama administration, health care reform will provide little relief for women who can’t afford abortions.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about health care by members of The Media Consortium. It is free to reprint. Visit the Pulse for a complete list of articles on health care reform, or follow us on Twitter. And for the best progressive reporting on critical economy, environment, health care and immigration issues, check out The Audit, The Mulch, and The Diaspora. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of leading independent media outlets.

Weekly Pulse: Healthcare Reform After Kennedy

10:03 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TPM MediaWire Blogger

One of healthcare reform’s greatest champions died last night. Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) succumbed to brain cancer at the age of 77. During his 46-year career in the senate, Kennedy’s name appeared on virtually every major piece of progressive legislation from civil rights to economic justice, to healthcare. Kennedy called healthcare reform "the cause of my life."

Jack Newfield of The Nation remembers Kennedy as the senate’s fighting liberal, the "best and most effective senator of the past hundred years."

James Ridgeway of Mother Jones laments:

We are left with weak, squabbling, visionless Democratic puppets and a President whose domestic reform policies are adrift—sliding towards the horizon with each passing day.

The loss is a blow to healthcare reform. Alex Koppelman of Salon notes that with Kennedy’s passing, the Democrats have lost one of their most effective bipartisan deal-makers. Democrats will also be down a vote in the senate for the foreseeable future because Massachusetts state law doesn’t allow for the appointment of an immediate replacement.

Naturally, with congress on vacation, wackos are rushing in to fill the media vacuum. Eric Boehlert asks in AlterNet why Republicans the only ones allowed to get angry about healthcare reform, or anything else. He notes that in 2003, the media decided that Howard Dean was too angry for prime time. During the Republican National Convention in 2008, SWAT teams were sent to raid the homes of suspected anarchist protesters. And yet, conservative demonstrators in Arizona are allowed to tote rifles just outside the security perimeter of a presidential event.

RNC Chair Michael Steele raised eyebrows by championing single-payer healthcare in an op/ed in the Washington Post framing the GOP as defenders of Medicare.

Odd that Steele has so much love for Medicare, but none for the nation’s other leading source of government-run healthcare, the Veterans Administration (VA). This week, Steele accused America’s other leading public insurance provider of encouraging veterans to commit suicide, based on a booklet published by the VA which explains living wills, advanced directives and other key concepts in end-of-life care, Rachel Slajda reports for TPM DC.

Progressives have been doing a great job debunking the death panel and death book myths, like this creative photo essay from TPM. But we’re scarcely addressing the misconception that underlies them: The idea government-administered health insurance is inherently more prone to rationing than private health insurance.

Newt Gingrich and other prominent opponents of reform claim that a public option will restrict choices and deny care. What they don’t say is that for-profit insurance is rationing. When your insurance company covers an old drug for your condition, but not a new one with fewer side effects, that’s rationing. The company is restricting your treatment choices to improve its bottom line. When an employer or an insurer decides not to cover mental health care, that’s rationing. The entire business model is predicated on charging people more and giving them less care so there’s more money left over for the stockholders.

No health insurance can cover every treatment, no matter who runs it. But public insurance has two major advantages: 1) Public insurance tends to be cheaper to administer; 2) The tough choices about what to cover are ultimately in the hands of the voters, not health insurance bureaucrats with an eye on the bottom line.

The whole town hall concept is turning out to be a strategic blunder for the White House. The format makes legislators and the media sitting ducks for extremists and astroturfers who want to paint themselves as typical citizens. As Sandy Heierbacher of the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation writes in YES Magazine:

[T]he town hall design sets the stage for activist groups and special interest groups to try to ‘game’ the system and sideline other concerned citizens in the process. As Martin Carcasson, director of Colorado State University’s Center for Public Deliberation, recently pointed out, “the loudest voices are the ones that get heard, and typically the majority voices in the middle don’t even show up because it becomes a shouting match.”

How much more clear can the Republicans be? They are not interested in bipartisanship. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), supposedly the Senate’s leading reasonable Republican on healthcare, couldn’t even be bothered to rebuke a town hall participant who hinted about assassinating the president, as Raw Story reports.

If the Democrats want healthcare reform, they are going to have to go it alone. Let’s hope they pass a bill that would make Sen. Kennedy proud.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about healthcare and is free to reprint. Visit Healthcare.newsladder.net for a complete list of articles on healthcare affordability, healthcare laws, and healthcare controversy. For the best progressive reporting on the Economy, and Immigration, check out Economy.Newsladder.net and Immigration.Newsladder.net.

This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Pulse: Public Option on Life Support

9:31 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Will healthcare reform include a public health insurance plan to compete with private health insurance? President Obama campaigned on the promise of a public option, but over the past week he and his top advisers have repeatedly signaled that they aren’t willing to fight for it.

On Saturday, Obama told a town hall meeting in Colorado: "Whether we have it or we don’t have it, [the public option] is not the entirety of health care reform. This is just one sliver of it, one aspect of it."

"I don’t understand why the left of the left has decided that this is their Waterloo," an unnamed senior White House official gripes in this morning’s Washington Post.

The White House is sorely mistaken if it thinks that the public option belongs in the "nice but not necessary" category. Josh Holland of AlterNet explains why the public option is the pillar of healthcare reform. Without it, there’s little hope of containing costs or reigning in the power of insurance companies:

"It may be just one "aspect" of health reform, but without it, the legislation promises to be a massive rip-off; a taxpayer give-away of hundreds of billions of dollars to an unreformed ‘disease care’ industry.

The industry would get millions of new customers thanks to generous government subsidies and a law requiring that (almost) everyone carry insurance. And that windfall would come without the structural changes needed to bend the medical "cost curve" in years to come — without any provisions that might endanger the industry’s bottom line."

In Salon, Robert Reich agrees. Competition between private insurance companies and the public option is the only hope to controlling costs. A public plan could bargain with providers to reduce costs and pass the savings on to taxpayers. The private insurance industry would have to slash its prices to compete.

Without a public option, "reform" would likely involve subsidies to private insurance companies, temporarily dulling the pain as premiums rise unchecked. That’s the worst of both worlds.

Progressives shouldn’t be surprised at the White House’s noncommittal stance, though. Obama campaigned on a public option, but he has always framed it a darned good idea, not as a non-negotiable demand.

Why is it so difficult to get a healthcare bill through the Senate with the supposedly filibuster-proof majority? The simple answer is that the Dems need 100% of their delegation to cooperate in order to break a filibuster. So, the Democrats have 60 seats in the Senate but no way to advance their agenda without capitulating to the conservative Blue Dogs. The Republicans can be counted on to filibuster whatever the Democrats come up with. Which means that conservative Democrats like Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) hold the balance of power.

As Ari Melber of The Nation explains, Baucus and his Republican counterpart Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) also rule over the powerful and conservative Senate Finance Committee, which has been tasked with writing the Senate version of the healthcare bill.

Also in The Nation, Tom Geoghegan argues that it’s time to break the stranglehold by abolishing the procedural filibuster. Unlimited debate in the Senate is enshrined in the constitution. In an old school filibuster, senators simply refuse to shut up until the session ends and the bill dies without a vote. In 1975, a group of liberals wrote a rule of Senate procedure that effectively allows senators to "filibuster" simply by saying they want to. In the old days, a filibuster was a grueling public ordeal. Senators slept on cots and spelled each other off. Today, "filibustering" means signing a form. It’s private, easy and cost-free. The Republicans can, and will, filibuster all major Democratic legislation without having to stand in public and risk being branded as obstructionists.

As a result, 60 is the new 50 in the Senate. Since it’s just a rule, the procedural filibuster could be abolished by a simple majority vote. Friends of the filibuster defend it as a bulwark against tyranny. Abolishing the procedural filibuster would discourage frivolous obstructionism, but keep the filibuster for cases when legislators actually care enough to lose sleep over it.

Ever wonder why the strongest public option, single-payer, was never on the table? Maybe because even the strongest proponents of the public plan are taking money from the insurance and biomedical industries. Mother Jones Rachel Morris wants to know why UNITEDHealth consultant Tom Daschle was on Meet the Press Sunday. A former Democratic senator, Daschle is a senior adviser to Obama on healthcare reform and a leading advocate of a public plan. However, he recently resumed a private consulting arrangement with UNITEDHealth, America’s largest health insurer. Even public plan champion Howard Dean is a strategic adviser on healthcare policy to the lobby firm of McKenna, Long, and Aldridge. Dean won’t disclose his clients, but McKenna represents a number of clients in the biomedical and health science industries.

The prospects of a public option are dimming, but not necessarily because of any rapid about-face by the White House. The Senate bill is in the hands of the Blue Dogs, who say they won’t have legislation until November. Obama won’t put the screws to the Blue Dogs, but there’s still plenty of time to for citizens to make their voices heard.

This post features links to the best independent, progressive reporting about healthcare and is free to reprint. Visit Healthcare.newsladder.net for a complete list of articles on healthcare affordability, healthcare laws, and healthcare controversy. For the best progressive reporting on the Economy, and Immigration, check out Economy.Newsladder.net and Immigration.Newsladder.net. This is a project of The Media Consortium, a network of 50 leading independent media outlets, and created by NewsLadder.

Weekly Pulse: Mob Scene

9:50 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger

This week’s edition of the Weekly Pulse is shorter than usual. Our team is getting ready for the fourth annual Netroots Nation blogger conference in Pittsburgh, PA. Esther Kaplan, editor of the Nation Investigative Fund, and I are conducting an investigative reporting workshop on Saturday from 1:30-4:15 p.m. Join us and help expose the corporate roots of the Teabagger/Town hall mob movement.

Here’s the latest news on the healthcare front: Republicans and their allies are pressuring Democratic healthcare reformers at townhall meetings around the country. Addie Stan has a blockbuster piece in AlterNet that exposes the network of corporate funders and lobbyists behind the mobs.

The Progressive’s Ruth Conniff explains the mobs’ marching orders, as spelled out in a memo by Bob MacGuffie, a volunteer for the Tea Party Patriots, an anti-reform group with ties to former Republican Rep. Dick Armey’s pressure group Freedom Works. MacGuffie instructs town hall protesters to shout at lawmakers and attempt to throw them off their game as they try to make the case for health care reform. So much for reasoned discussion.

As I reported in In These Times, the teabaggers are trying to scapegoat organized labor as the instigators of confrontations at town hall meetings. On August 6, a scuffle broke out in front of a town hall meeting in St. Louis. This video clip shows the last 10 seconds of a scuffle in which a man in an SEIU t-shirt lies prostrate on the ground. A 38-year-old conservative activist claims to have been severely beaten, but the video shows him apparently uninjured, darting around to different cops and trying to convince them that he was attacked. The man’s lawyer claims that he saw his client get punched in the face and kicked in the head by SEIU members.
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Weekly Pulse: Angry Mobs Demand the Status Quo

10:22 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

By Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger

By now it’s clear that the Senate Finance Committee won’t cough up a heathcare bill before the summer recess. As Nick Bauman points out in Mother Jones, the delay is sure to sap momentum for reform. Worse, the break will give healthcare reform’s opponents more time to spread fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Disinformation is already running wild.

Dave Weigel of the Washington Independent points to July 31 memo from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) entitled "A Very Hot Summer," in which he announces that the GOP has launched an “entrepreneurial insurgency” against healthcare reform.

And now the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) is openly celebrating the angry mobs of anti-reform protesters that are disrupting town hall meetings and shouting down pro-reform Democrats, as Eric Kleefeld of TPM DC notes. "Roaring Chants Interrupt Healthcare PR Campaign As Dems Lose Their Cool and Town Halls Turn Into ‘Town Hells’," gloats one NRCC email message to reporters. This campaign’s official logo depicts a donkey being roasted alive

If the reformers used the NRCC’s playbook, reporters would be deluged with retaliatory tweets claiming that teabaggers are killing babies and raping old women, but facts are stubborn things. As of press time, the Pulse is not aware of any ritual sacrifices by teabaggers at townhall meetings.

Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly warns that the GOP’s strategy to egg on the wingnuts could have unintended consequences:

It’s probably the one angle the corporate interests and their lobbyists haven’t considered: the unintended consequences of rallying confused right-wing activists to shout down policymakers who’ll improve their health care coverage. Once you wind up the fanatics and point them in the direction of a town-hall meeting, you never really know what they’re going to say, do, wear, or hold. In at least one Read the rest of this entry →

Weekly Pulse: Healthcare Bill Poised to Suck

9:30 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger

The Senate Finance Committee is reportedly very close to finishing its healthcare legislation. But as the bill’s details leak, anticipation is quickly turning to dejection in progressive healthcare circles. Early word has it that the almost finished a bill includes no public option, no employer mandate, and no insurance exchange. Steve Benen of the Washington Monthly explains why the Senate Finance Committee bill is going to suck.

At TAPPED, Scott Lemieux argues that if the Senate legislation doesn’t have a public option or an employer mandate, we’d be better off not passing a healthcare bill. Conventional wisdom is that even a bad bill would be better than nothing: Once we get the basic infrastructure for universal healthcare in place, it will be easier to build on that rather than starting from scratch. However, as Lemieux points out, a bill with no public option would only further entrench the insurance industry and make it easier for them to block reforms in the future.

Remember that the bill that comes out of the Finance Committee still has to be reconciled with other versions, like the version from the Health Education Labor and Pensions Committee. So, it’s possible that progressive Senators will win some concessions. However, as we’ve discussed before, the Senate is the key to passing healthcare reform, and the Blue Dogs are the key to passing the bill in the Senate. Whatever comes out of the Finance Committee is going to carry a lot of weight with the Blue Dogs.

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Weekly Pulse: The Rocky Road to Reform

9:18 am in Uncategorized by TheMediaConsortium

by Lindsay Beyerstein, TMC MediaWire Blogger

Healthcare is dominating domestic politics this week, as Congress and President Obama outline their visions for reform. The president is pushing Congress to pass a bill that keeps healthcare costs in check before the August deadline. Obama must have been disappointed when the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO) announced last week that the Dem’s healthcare bills won’t cut spending. The president won’t sign a bill that doesn’t contain cost cuts, so legislators know they’ll have to tweak the bill.

Obama’s strenuous efforts to pass healthcare reform have invited comparisons to Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, which created the American social safety net. In Salon, Michael Lind argues that Obama’s insistence on tying health insurance to employment actually betrays the legacy of the New Deal:

We decided that when it came to benefits our guiding principle should be a "citizen-based social contract." We chose this phrase, not to discriminate against non-citizens, but to express two ideas: first, that benefits like healthcare ought to be not a privilege but rather an entitlement of all citizens in our democratic republic, and second, that all benefits should be detached from employers and follow individuals through their lives. In thinking about healthcare, we rejected various options that would not move us toward a citizen-based social insurance system. Unfortunately, the health plan being promoted by Obama and Congress is based on one of those bad options.

Special interests are sparing no expense in their final campaign to influence healthcare reform. Senate Finance Committee Chair Max Baucus, D-Mont., was charged with crafting a public plan for a bipartisan seal of approval, but raked in more than $3 million from healthcare lobbyists and industry groups between 2003 and 2008, according to Mike Lillis of the Washington Independent. Baucus announced that he was swearing off healthcare Read the rest of this entry →