Ukrainian Protesters: Where is Obama? Where are the Sanctions?

It’s Unity Day in Ukraine: 95 years ago today, Ukraine declared its independence from Czarist Russia. Due to insufficient support from foreign powers—Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire—Ukraine fell to the Bolsheviks,  and went on to experience one of the worst genocides in history and 70 years of brutal Soviet repression. Today, history risks repeating itself as the EU and the Obama administration sit by, releasing statements, as Ukraine’s government fires on protesters demanding democracy.  


In the past 24-hours, five protesters have been killed. Four were shot to death. Activist Yuri Verbitsky has been found dead in the woods, signs of torture on his broken body; he had been kidnapped from a hospital where he was receiving treatment after a clash with riot police. Their deaths could have been avoided if the West had listened to pleas from protesters to enact sanctions against Ukraine's brutal regime. 

Since the end of November, Ukrainians have been peacefully protesting in a movement called EuroMaidan, named after Kyiv’s main square known as “Maidan.” Their numbers sometimes grew to over 200,000 as they demanded their president sign the promised deal to move his country closer to the EU. Instead, President Yanukovych accepted a $15 billion aid package and cheap gas prices from his close ally Vladimir Putin. Last week, Yanukovych had his parliament push through dozens of laws eradicating free speech, investigative journalism, and the right to protest. This brazen move was directly ripped from Putin’s playbook. Protesters are now receiving Orwellian text-messages identifying them as being part of the demonstrations.

Last Sunday, tens of thousands gathered at Maidan. But the new totalitarian laws, lack of meaningful actions from the West, drove a handful of protesters to violence. The violence escalated. Now clouds of smoke fill the streets near Maidan, and central Kyiv resembles a war zone.

How many people have to die before the West enacts sanctions? President Yanukovych’s abuse of power is well-documented. His son, a dentist, lives in a $100 million home. He is blatantly more concerned about preserving his lifestyle than leading a democratic nation that he’s willing to push Ukraine back into the Soviet dark ages. Despite statements from Western governments calling for peace, Yanukovych continues to order violence against his people. Repeated statements from the West did not prevent what happened to Tetyana Chernovil. After publishing photographs of the massive private homes of some of Ukraine’s ruling oligarchs, Chernovil, an investigative journalist, was rammed off the road, pulled out of her car, and nearly beaten to death. 

Money is clearly a sensitive issue with President Yanukovych and his regime. And it is where the West can exert control on the human rights crisis in Ukraine. The EU and the Obama administration must listen to the Ukrainian people and sanction members of the government responsible for the violence and totalitarian laws. Another statement, another call for peace will not work with criminals. President Yanukovych rose to power as a mafia thug and that is how he continues to rule. Mafia thugs don’t understand peace, but they do understand the freezing of money laundering bank accounts.

Sanctions must be the West’s next and immediate step, because Ukrainians will not stop fighting. They do not want to live in a prison like Belarus or see Ukraine turn into the next Chechnya. As Voltaire astutely observed: “Ukraine has always aspired to be free.”

This time, unlike 95 years ago on Ukraine's first Unity Day, Ukraine can go on to live free from Russia and its confederacy of thugs. But Ukrainians' dream of freedom depends on sanctions from the West and not another empty statement. 

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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.
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  • 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.

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