Review: Doctor Who Episode 197

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SPOILER ALERT — Do not read unless you have seen Episode 197, The Doctor’s ———.
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Review: Asylum (1972)

This is a documentary, of sorts, about crazy people. A small camera crew spent a few weeks in a psychiatrist’s experimental group home for, well, crazy people. The result is absolutely fascinating. There is basically no narrative — a few interjections from R.D. Laing, the psychiatrist whose work inspired this group home, and occasionally some commentary from the psychiatrists and more functional residents of in the home. Most of the time the film is just a fly-on-the-wall perspective on life in the house.

The psychiatrists mean for the house to be an “asylum” in the original sense of the term — a safe place, a place where, as one of the residents pointed out, it was ok to freak out and be crazy without being judged or frightening anyone or being threatened with institutionalization. There are several main “characters,” although we are told very little background information about any of them. Julia seems to occasionally regress into infancy. Lee, an American, is the most functional resident and seems to suffer from an anxiety disorder. Jamie seems to be extremely introverted and shy, and when his overbearing father (or possibly uncle?) comes to take him away for the summer (and perhaps forever) you are actually surprised that 1) Jamie turned out so well considering and 2) the father and/or uncle isn’t on the couch himself. (He has actually hired/persuaded an ugly but nice secretary — I’m paraphrasing — to go on dates with Jamie to make sure he doesn’t “go the other way.”)

It is striking how much of an “asylum” the house really is. For the most part, the tenants all get along well with each other, despite their quirks and outbursts and wall-writing. In a particularly touching scene, one resident patiently helps an almost catatonic Julia walk down the stairs, step by slow step.

The only conflicts shown involve David, who apparently suffers from dissociative identity disorder (formerly called MPD) and never stops talking. No, really. He never stops talking (much to the distress of Julia). He is hands-down the most “crazy” and potentially dangerous resident of the asylum which leads to a bit of a crisis near the end of the movie, after David hits several of the other residents. The most fascinating scene is a democratic-ish town hall meeting led by the psychiatrists, with all residents of the house present. The psychiatrists are actually trying to reason with David and (with varying levels of success) trying to get the other residents to participate. The psychiatrists’ dedication to human dignity is phenomenal in this scene, as they refuse to treat David like a crazy person and insist that he take responsibility for his own actions. The most terrifying thing about David, to me, was his absolute inability to see or acknowledge another person’s point of view.

The film doesn’t really have much of a conclusion as to how that turns out. The final scene takes place with a subdued, relatively laconic David talking about his former jobs, and you finally are able to see even him as a real person.

If you have any interest in psychology or sociology, you will find Asylum worth watching.

Deaf British Babies: Morally Repugnant?

I have recently started listening to podcasts on my way to work, in an effort to become more aware of current events. As much as I have loved spending my incoming and outgoing commutes reading fiction, DC has a higher-than-average expectation of cultural literacy and I was beginning to feel ignorant and disconnected. It was OK as long as I was in school — “I’m working on my thesis” is a sentence that excuses all — but now things are different.

One of the first podcasts I turn to every morning, right after the NPR 7 a.m. five-minute news summary, is NewsPod from BBC Radio, which is a 20-30 minute mix of “daily programme highlights.” Last week it featured an excerpt from a “monthly disability talk show” called “Ouch!” The topic was the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Bill which, quoting BBC Health News, “will make it illegal to use embryos with a known genetic abnormality in IVF treatment when ones without the same defect are available.”

Let’s say you’re a couple facing fertility issues, and you’ve ended up with two viable embryos to choose from. (Yes, I am greatly simplifying the process, normally you’d have more than two, but this is not a science lesson.) One seems to be a perfectly normal healthy embryo. One seems to be a perfectly normal healthy embryo except that it will probably be deaf. The proposed legislation would mandate that you throw away the deaf embryo and implant the normal one. *

The Ouch! interview describes the process accurately (as a choice between embryos) and then devolves into a completely inane, irrelevant discussion about deaf culture and children’s rights. The entire discussion is framed as a “you cannot impose your choices on an innocent child” argument — you can’t decide to make your child deaf.

Both the interviewer and interviewee completely miss what’s going on here. The fact is, you are not making anyone deaf or not deaf. You have two individuals already in existence – you have a deaf pre-person and a hearing pre-person. The question is not “can you make a hearing pre-person deaf,” the question is “can you make it illegal for the deaf/blind/whatever pre-person to continue living.”

Now, IVF ooks me out in the first place, because when you get the point of having to pick your embryos, there’s the danger of wandering into “children as accessories” territory, which is a long post for another day. (Do you want a strappy sandal or a stiletto pump? Do feel like having a son or a daughter? Fries with that?) I can live with these decisions being made by individuals. But to make it a law? For the government to decide who gets to be born? That freaks out my self-governing American heart.

It’s not even like we’re talking about a major disability. The law, as written, doesn’t apply only to profound deformities, the kind that sentence a child to die at a few days old, or that leave a person vegetative for life. What parent would choose to implant those embryos, anyway? Although I don’t agree with some deaf culture advocates (including the parent interviewed by Ouch!) that being deaf is just as awesome as being able to hear, being deaf is far from debilitating. Deaf families hop into their cars and drive to Applebees just like everyone else. They are not drains on society and they require little special treatment. (TTY phones and sign-language interpreters, is that so much to ask?) The same goes for the other “known genetic abnormalities” that parents might choose over “normal” children.

And really, when you consider the frequencies with which these embryos even occur — and the number of parents who are going to knowingly choose them over “normal” embryos — well, is this really such a huge problem for Great Britain that they have to introduce a bill like this?

Finally, one last quote from BBC News/Health: “.. But to others… deliberately bringing a child with a disability into the world when one without could be born verges on the morally repugnant.”

Really. Morally repugnant? Really? Morally repugnant is forcing someone to give birth to a child they don’t want. But allowing a very small percentage of parents to make an unconventional choice as to which pre-person they want to share their lives and love with? That’s repugnant?

* For the record, I am completely pro-choice and I have absolutely no moral qualms with tossing out embryos. I’m just not afraid to use accurate descriptive language.

Links of the Day: 2008.02.24

Familial Searching: Making CSI a Family Affair

The Wall Street Journal is reporting a new forensic technique in Great Britain – familial DNA searching. Supported by a DNA database, to which anyone arrested must contribute, the bobbies run a sample (of blood, semen, hair, etc.) left behind by their wanted criminal. If they don’t find a match, they look at the close, possibly related matches, and try to find the criminal by interviewing his or her possible relative.

The article includes the predictable points…

  • “DNA is the best kind of forensic evidence there is — it’s better than an eyewitness account.”
  • “The Home Office, which oversees the police forces of England and Wales and their combined DNA database, say those who are innocent have nothing to fear from providing a sample. They say retaining this evidence is no different from recording other forms of information such as photographs and witness statements.”

… and counterpoints:

  • “Unlike old-fashioned fingerprints, [civil liberties groups] say, DNA contains health and hereditary data such as paternity markers that could be misused.”
  • “[Civil liberties groups] say a DNA-based “ethnic inference” test can provide uncertain predictions about the race of potential suspects that may mislead the police or reinforce existing prejudices.”

It seems that few people object to retaining DNA profiles of convicted criminals. It’s the involvement of innocent people — both the ones who were arrested but let go or acquitted, as well as the relatives of the perpetrator-in-question who are likely not involved with his or her crime.

Familial searching doesn’t present a change in basic police procedure. The police are always going to question relatives of a suspect.

On the other hand, they usually know who their suspect is first.

Collecting DNA is not terribly different from collecting fingerprints or retinal patterns.

On the other hand, you can’t (as far as I know) determine a biological relationship between people based on fingerprints or retinal scans.

For better or for worse, this is going to happen. People (in the United States, at least) are going to be furious about it, but someday, eventually, we are all going to have a DNA sample attached to our entry in the national ID database. It’s just a matter of time. Instead of fighting it wholesale, we need to be sure that the we properly bring the definition of “probable cause” and “unreasonable search and seizure” into the 21st century.

The Gene Police [WSJ]