Will Saletan Seemingly Determined to Miss the Point on Scanning vs. Groping

Will Saletan of Slate has made a career of suggesting ways that women can compromise their bodily autonomy for the greater good. So, maybe I should take his latest column as a gesture of solidarity. Therein, Saletan argues that we should acquiesce to the new nude backscatter scans because the new genital-groping pat-down is objectively so much worse:


And from the standpoint of dignity, [the National Opt-Out Day activists'] advice is insane. If you opt out of the scan, you'll get a pat-down instead. You'll trade a fast, invisible, intangible, privacy-protected machine inspection for an unpleasant, extended grope. In effect, you'll be telling TSA to touch your junk.

Saletan purports to be an expert on applied ethics, yet he is blind to the sexualized coercion implicit in the "choice" between allowing a stranger in another room to see your naked body vs. having your junk touched. (For the record, I don't support National Opt-Out Day, in part because a lot of its major backers will use any slowdown as pretext to privatize TSA, which is such a complete non sequitur that anyone who even suggests privatization as a cure for junk-probing is insulting your intelligence. Private contractors would enforce the same rules as public employees. Remember how we outsourced interrogation of terrorism suspects overseas? That ended very badly.)

It's all about managing expectations. Homeland Security could have decreed that everyone must pass through the nude scanner. If that had been the edict, TSA would be grappling with even bigger backlash. Ostensibly giving passengers a choice between a scan and a pat-down makes the invasion of privacy seem more acceptable. It gives the passenger the illusion of control. We're so busy playing "scan or grope?" that we forget to ask why we're paying for scanners the TSA can't even justify with a cost-benefit analysis.

Despite what Saletan would have you believe, acquiescence is no guarantee that your junk will be left alone. According to the TSA blog, you will get patted down if you refuse a whole body scan; if you get scanned and something looks unusual; if you set off the metal detector; or at random. How many times have you been called back through the metal detector because of a rivet on your jeans or an aglet on your shoelace?

The metal clips on my mom's fallopian tubes set off airport metal detectors about one out of every 10 times she flies! Until now, it's been a big joke. She just laughs and tells them they've got the thing turned up too high. I hope she won't get groped next time.

Of course the genital pat-down feels more significantly more invasive and degrading to most people than the body scan. That's what makes this whole scenario so profoundly morally objectionable. The point of the new junk-touching protocols is to make the scanners seem attractive by comparison

The new invasive pat-downs were introduced on Oct. 29, just before the new scanners rolled out in dozens of airports across the country. Homeland Security made the pat-downs worse on purpose. A TSA screener predicted that nobody would opt for a pat-down over a scan "once they figure out what we're going to do [viz junk]."

If the choice were between a standard pat-down and a scan, more people would choose the pat-down. If enough people felt queasy about nude scans, screening would slow, and the scanners would become an expensive boondoggle overnight.

Nobody has even tried to justify across-the-board "enhanced" pat-downs as enhanced security. We're just supposed to assume some magical relationship holds between the touching of junk and the prevention of hijackings. The old protocol was pretty thorough and agents always had the option of pulling people aside for additional screening if the initial frisk turned up anything suspicious.

The threat of groping is the stick the TSA is using to herd us through the nude scanners. What's so objectionable about the program is not just the nude scans, it's the fact that people are being forced to do something that many regard as sexually humiliating with the threat of even greater sexual humiliation. If you believe the TSA propaganda about how the machines don't really show that much, consider the fate of TSA Miami screener Rolando Negrin who was mercilessly teased by his co-workers after they saw his penis during training.

As videographer/protester John "Don't Touch My Junk" Tyner found out when he refused a scan and a pat-down in San Diego, you're not necessarily allowed to leave if you get to the screening area and decide you'd rather skip the whole thing.

The scanners will not save lives. They will only make money for Michael Chertoff's cronies. Check out this Popular Mechanics interview with security consultant Bruce Schneier, the man who coined the term "security theater." According to Schneier, the manufacturers of the scanners admit their technology would not have caught the underwear bomber. "The guys who make the machines have said, "We wouldn't have caught that," he said.

[Image credit: Stargazer95050, Creative Commons.]

'Upstreamism': Your zip code affects your health as much as genetics

Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Upstreamism tasks health care professionals to combat unhealthy social and cultural influences that exist outside — or upstream — of medical facilities.
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  • A huge segment of America's population — the Baby Boom generation — is aging and will live longer than any American generation in history.
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Some evidence attributes a certain neurological phenomenon to a near death experience.

Credit: Petr Kratochvil. PublicDomainPictures.net.
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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.