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Associated Press/Photo by Phil McCarten

The Buzz

Need-to-know news

Issue: "Ready or not, here we go," March 28, 2009

Eugenics

A California fertility doctor, Jeff Steinberg, backed down from his plan to let parents pick the eye and hair color of the embryos they implanted. Steinberg, director of The Fertility Institutes, has already helped parents choose the gender of their embryos. He told the New York Daily News he could also let parents pick their children's cosmetic characteristics using a technology called preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD). He dismissed ethical objections with the contention that the technology is inevitable: "Genetic health is the wave of the future. It's already happening and it's not going to go away." But after an outraged response from bioethicists and pro-life groups (including one of the scientists who developed PGD), Fertility Institutes issued a statement saying it was suspending the plan because its doctors "remain sensitive to public perception" and felt that the "negative societal impacts" outweigh the benefits. Instead, the group will use the technology to screen for albinism and other diseases.

Steep, swift drop

Despite some March gains, the stock market has lost half its value since its peak in October 2007-and nearly a third of that since President Obama took office. Some economists argued that Obama was right this month to compare watching the markets to tracking the political polls: "It bobs up and down day to day, and if you spend all your time worrying about that, then you're probably going to get the long-term strategy wrong," he said. But others point out that the radical changes in the president's $3.6 trillion budget blueprint--doubling the national debt and significantly reordering spending priorities-are likely to suppress markets for some time. "The European social welfare states present a window on our potential future: standards of living permanently 30 percent lower than ours," noted Stanford University economist Michael J. Boskin.

Troop swap

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Some experts are critical of the U.S. decision to send replacement forces this fall to Afghanistan instead of Iraq-a drawdown of 12,000 troops there considered a "down payment" on President Obama's plan for combat withdrawal in Iraq by August 2010. "My own view is that the downside risk of a slower reinforcement in Afghanistan is smaller than many people think. And the risk in faster withdrawal from Iraq is greater than most people think," said Stephen Biddle, senior fellow for defense policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Short-term numbers may speak louder than long-term strategy: February U.S. casualties in Iraq numbered 16, down from 28 in 2008. In Afghanistan casualties numbered 24, up from 7 in February 2008.

Declining value

A landmark survey suggests that the number of Americans who call themselves "Christian" declined from 1990 to 2001 and has stayed virtually constant since then. The American Religious Identification Survey last year for the third time surveyed Americans about their religious identifications: Self-identified Christians declined from 86 percent of American adults in 1990 to 77 percent in 2001 and 76 percent in 2008. Those describing themselves as having no religion jumped from 8 percent in 1990 to 14 percent in 2001 and 15 percent last year.

The survey found that 45 percent of those identifying with Christianity now call themselves "evangelicals": Almost two out of five mainline Christians and one out of five Catholics identify themselves that way. The number of self-described "nondenominational" Christians rose from 200,000 in 1990 to 8 million in 2008. Thirty percent of married couples said they did not have a religious wedding ceremony, and 27 percent of individuals said they do not want a religious funeral.

End of story

Barbara McKay of Kirkland, Wash., told reporters she would seek her doctor's help for a medical option now legal in her state: ending her own life. McKay appeared at a press conference March 5 when Washington's physician-assisted suicide law took effect. McKay, 60, has late-stage ovarian cancer and has informed her doctor she may want life-ending drugs as her disease progresses. The new law allows Washington doctors to prescribe lethal medications to qualifying patients, but patients must self-administer the drugs. Patients must also be at least 18, deemed mentally competent, and have a terminal illness.

As many as two-thirds of the state's 97 hospitals may invoke the law's provision for opting out of assisted suicides. But that could prove incidental: In Oregon most of the 401 people who have ended their lives under the state's law have died at home.

How about a ban on the ban?

After receiving several complaints from people offended by prayers and religious messages offered during sporting events, the Illinois High School Association (IHSA) banned all such messages during tournament games-even when those games take place at private schools. According to several private institutions that contacted the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), IHSA was concerned that allowing religious messages at IHSA events, even on private property, constituted state endorsement of religion. In a March 4 letter to IHSA executive director Marty Hickman, ADF attorney David Cortman explained that the IHSA ban on prayer is likely an unconstitutional restriction on private schools' free exercise of religion. In addition, Cortman wrote, "If the IHSA concedes to the demands of a few individuals here, how far will others push that 'precedent' in the future? When a Catholic school hosts a baseball regional tournament, will it be required to remove a Virgin Mary statue that sits on its campus before a public school team arrives and sees it?"

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