Abortion, genetic tests, and pro-choice squirming.

Abortion, genetic tests, and pro-choice squirming.

Abortion, genetic tests, and pro-choice squirming.

Science, technology, and life.
Sept. 21 2007 7:47 AM

Wrongful Termination

Abortion, genetic tests, and pro-choice squirming.

For discussions of the latest topics, check out the Human Nature Fray.

A physics analysis pinpoints steroids as the most plausible explanation for the surge in home runs. Calculations: 1) From 1962 to 1997, nobody hit more than 52 homers a season. 2) Since 1998, players have topped 60 homers six times, peaking at 73 (Barry Bonds). 3) Since 2003, the annual maximum has fallen back to normal levels. 4) This rise and fall coincides with (a) the emergence of steroids and (b) the subsequent imposition of steroid testing. 5) Steroids can increase muscle force and bat kinetic energy by 10 percent, thereby increasing bat speed by 5 percent, thereby increasing fly-ball speed by 4 percent, thereby increasing home-run output by 50 percent. 6) Alternative explanations for the home-run surge—smaller ballparks, weaker pitching, more black players—don't coincide with the surge. Naïve conclusion: Steroids are powerful. Sophisticated conclusion: Home-run records move at the far end of a bell curve, making steroids look more powerful than they really are. (Related columns: steroids vs. LASIK; steroids vs. steak; Olympic doping.)

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Doctors worry that prenatal genetic tests are prompting unwarranted abortions. Fetal screening that began with fatal horrors such as Tay-Sachs now extends to milder troubles such as Gaucher disease, which is asymptomatic in half its carriers and highly treatable in the rest. In a new study, only one of 13 couples that got medical counseling from a Gaucher expert chose abortion, but all three couples that got no such counseling aborted. Acceptable pro-choice reactions: 1) It's "debatable" whether "termination of pregnancy of fetuses either treatable or likely to be asymptomatic … represents a true benefit." 2) "To avoid termination of pregnancies for generally mild conditions," we need "a combination of traditional, nondirective genetic counseling" with expert medical counseling. Unacceptable reaction: Aborting these kids is wrong. (Related columns: The slippery slope of embryo screening.) Question: If it's good to push counseling on women who might choose abortion due to genetic disease, why is it bad to push counseling on women who might choose abortion for non-medical reasons? Answer here.

Satellite imagery and Internet collaboration are revolutionizing search and rescue. Latest case: 20,000 Web users combining to scan the huge area where balloonist Steve Fossett disappeared. Google is supplying satellite pictures of each quadrant of the land; Amazon is supplying software that assigns quadrants to volunteers and coordinates their findings. Nevada authorities have halted daily plane and helicopter searches due to cost and are awaiting "credible leads" from the Google-Amazon project. Approved spin: It's a triumph of compassion and technology. Unapproved spin: … if you don't count the part where they found nothing and he's probably dead. Human Nature's view: Maybe we should have tried this on Saddam's WMD before invading Iraq. (Do you know anyone participating in the Fossett search? Tell us about it.)

Men are hiring photographers to surreptitiously record their marriage proposals. Photographers say the practice has been growing for three years. In some cases, the client and photographer arrange the timing and location for picture quality, e.g., where to stand (unbeknownst to the woman) so the camera can see both faces. One man choreographed his proposal so his girlfriend would "look pretty for the photographs." Rationales: 1) It's romantic. 2) It's a way to "share" a special moment with friends and family. 3) "The smile on her face in that moment is something you can't recreate." Critiques: 1) It's "stalkerish." 2) It's narcissistic. 3) It's a self-discrediting attempt at authenticity. 4) People are putting the photos on the Internet, so the "sharing" is indiscriminate. 5) We've come to think that photos and video are "the only way to document something" and that "if it's not on Facebook, it didn't happen." Feminist spin: It's another creepy thing men do to women. Misogynist spin: But the women are so vain they email the photos to all their co-workers. Human Nature's challenge: Find a guy who has posted photos of his girlfriend saying no. (Contestants please submit entries here.)

Football coaches and analysts are parsing the ethics of spying vs. videotaping in the wake of the New England Patriots video scandal. Common tactics: assigning your third-string quarterback to watch the opposing sideline for signals, sending spies to opponents' practices, and "signing" one of your opponent's ex-players for a week to download their plays. Analysts' distinctions: John Madden: "Stealing signals, getting snap counts, looking for keys on film—we all did that. But if you let electronics into it, that's different." More Madden: "It's become so sophisticated compared to when I coached. They not only have the tape after the game, but they have all the computer stuff to edit it. … The difference here is using videotape." Sports ethicist William Morgan: "Using technology to do it strikes me as really below the belt." NFL Films President Steve Sabol: By using video, the Patriots broke an NFL rule. Human Nature's view: Using video isn't morally worse than using your eyes, but it's more dangerous, because the video can be confiscated and prove you were spying. (Related item: That's what happened to the Patriots.) Is video worse than spying? Weigh in here.


Computer espionage is becoming the main weapon in divorce litigation. Examples: e-mail hacking, PDA theft, and programs that monitor the "family" PC for Web activity and passwords. What your spouse wants to find out: 1) Are you cheating? 2) Are you hiding assets? 3) Have you done anything that can be used against you in a custody fight? Driving forces: fear, temptation, divorce lawyers, and private investigators. One divorce lawyer "routinely asks judges for court orders to seize and copy the hard drives … of her clients' spouses." Conclusions: 1) Nothing you do on a computer is secret or fully erasable. 2) The chief threat to your privacy is your spouse, not the government. Spying husband's defense: Businesses have the right to read employee e-mail, and marriage is a business, too. (Wendy, I'll be at your apartment at 12:30.) Got a domestic espionage story? Post it in the Fray.

The Vatican decreed that it's wrong to stop feeding PVS patients through their tubes. Rationale: 1) It's basic sustenance. 2) It's cheap. 3) It doesn't require hospitalization. 4) PVS doesn't entail imminent death. 5) If PVS is burdensome enough to justify a food cutoff, so are quadriplegia, Alzheimer's, and severe mental illness. 6) No impairment can take away human dignity. 7) Your life isn't yours to end; it's God's. (Caveat: Doctors can stop the feeding if medical complications make you "unable to assimilate food and liquids" or "cause significant physical discomfort" due to feeding.) Objection: Feeding tubes are artificial. Vatican rebuttal: Yes, but their purpose is feeding, which is natural and ordinary, therefore obligatory. Human Nature's question: By that logic, isn't all medical technology natural and ordinary, since it serves basic life functions? (Related column: Buried alive in your own skull.) To weigh in, enter the Fray.

One of every three U.S. men doesn't wash his hands after using public bathrooms. Percentage of Americans who claimed in a phone survey that they always do it: 92. Percentage who actually did it an "observational study": 77. Gender gap: 88 percent of women did it, but only 66 percent of men—a drop from the 75 percent of men who did it in a similar study two years ago. Official reaction: "Many cases of colds, flu, and foodborne illness are spread by unclean hands, and these diseases are responsible for billions of dollars each year in health care expenditures and productivity losses." Unofficial reaction: "That's gross." Observational study methodology: "Observers discreetly watched and recorded whether or not adults using public restrooms washed their hands." Human Nature's question: And none of them got arrested? (Related item: The 2005 bathroom survey.) Add your "observational study" here.

Anecdotes indicate some organ procurers are becoming too aggressive. Reports: 1) Procurers "routinely comb through patients' records looking for potential donors" at some hospitals. 2) Some masquerade as grief counselors or as hospital staff. 3) Many use a "high-pressure pitch," and some "almost browbeat families into submission." 4) Some request HIV- or other donation-related tests of patients without families' consent. 5) Some ask doctors to give patients drugs to keep their organs viable; one transplant surgeon administered such drugs unilaterally. 6) A procurer pressured a neurologist to prematurely declare a patient brain-dead. Procurers' rebuttals: 1) We're just trying to save lives. 2) We ask for tests and drugs just to keep open the family's "opportunity" to donate. 3) The tests and drugs don't hurt the patient. 4) We don't want to upset the family by telling them right away who we are. (Related column: Is it better to let people sell their organs?) To add your voice, enter the Fray.

Breast-cancer gene carriers are debating preemptive mastectomy. A quarter-million U.S. women have the gene, which gives you a 60 to 90 percent chance of getting the cancer. Self-invented name: "previvors." Mastectomy  arguments: 1) You're lucky to be the first generation that knows what's coming. You'd be a fool not to take advantage of the knowledge. 2) If you do it, you'll never feel like a real woman again. 3) If you don't, you'll worry about cancer all the time. 4) If you delay it a few years, science may find a cure. 5) Science might find a cure in time for your daughters, not for you. Do it now so you'll live long enough to have them. 6) If you do it too early, no man will marry you, so you'll never have kids anyway. 7) Get married fast so you can have the kids and get the surgery early. 8) Rushing your boyfriend will just drive him away. 9) You can still get a man, by replacing your real boobs with fake ones. 10) No, fake ones look fake. 10) Yeah, but they're getting better. 11) Yeah, but to keep your nipples, you have to slightly increase your risk of cancer. 12) OK, then here's the deal: Lose the breast, keep the nipples. (Related column: The abolition of menstruation.) Would you get a preemptive mastectomy? Answer here.

Latest Human Nature columns:  1) Are conservatives stupid? 2)  Larry Craig's anti-gay hypocrisy. 3) The jihad against tobacco. 4)  Fat lies and fat lies revisited. 5)  Liberals and bioethics. 6) The case for turning food into fuel. 7) Recombining  man and beast. 8) The spread of virgin births. 9) Abolishing menstruation.