Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Terri Schiavo: Judicial Murder

This is a powerful writing from Nat Hentoff in Village Voice that illuminates this painful issue more.

Regards,
Sohel


Terri Schiavo: Judicial Murder

Her crime was being disabled, voiceless, and at the disposal of our media
by Nat Hentoff

For all the world to see, a 41-year-old woman, who has committed no crime, will die of dehydration and starvation in the longest public execution in American history.
She is not brain-dead or comatose, and breathes naturally on her own. Although brain-damaged, she is not in a persistent vegetative state, according to an increasing number of radiologists and neurologists.

Among many other violations of her due process rights, Terri Schiavo has never been allowed by the primary judge in her case—Florida Circuit Judge George Greer, whose conclusions have been robotically upheld by all the courts above him—to have her own lawyer represent her.
Greer has declared Terri Schiavo to be in a persistent vegetative state, but he has never gone to see her. His eyesight is very poor, but surely he could have visited her along with another member of his staff. Unlike people in a persistent vegetative state, Terri Schiavo is indeed responsive beyond mere reflexes.

While lawyers and judges have engaged in a minuet of death, the American Civil Liberties Union, which would be passionately criticizing state court decisions and demanding due process if Terri were a convict on death row, has shamefully served as co-counsel for her husband, Michael Schiavo, in his insistent desire to have her die.

Months ago, in discussing this case with ACLU executive director Anthony Romero, and later reading ACLU statements, I saw no sign that this bastion of the Bill of Rights has ever examined the facts concerning the egregious conflicts of interest of her husband and guardian Michael Schiavo, who has been living with another woman for years, with whom he has two children, and has violated a long list of his legal responsibilities as her guardian, some of them directly preventing her chances for improvement. Judge Greer has ignored all of them.

In February, Florida's Department of Children and Families presented Judge Greer with a 34-page document listing charges of neglect, abuse, and exploitation of Terri by her husband, with a request for 60 days to fully investigate the charges. Judge Greer, soon to remove Terri's feeding tube for the third time, rejected the 60-day extension. (The media have ignored these charges, and much of what follows in this article.)

Michael Schiavo, who says he loves and continues to be devoted to Terri, has provided no therapy or rehabilitation for his wife (the legal one) since 1993. He did have her tested for a time, but stopped all testing in 1993. He insists she once told him she didn't want to survive by artificial means, but he didn't mention her alleged wishes for years after her brain damage, while saying he would care for her for the rest of his life.

Terri Schiavo has never had an MRI or a PET scan, nor a thorough neurological examination. Republican Senate leader Bill Frist, a specialist in heart-lung transplant surgery, has, as The New York Times reported on March 23, "certified [in his practice] that patients were brain dead so that their organs could be transplanted." He is not just "playing doctor" on this case.

During a speech on the Senate floor on March 17, Frist, speaking of Judge Greer's denial of a request for new testing and examinations of Terri, said reasonably, "I would think you would want a complete neurological exam" before determining she must die.

Frist added: "The attorneys for Terri's parents have submitted 33 affidavits from doctors and other medical professionals,all of whom say that Terri should be re-evaluated."

In death penalty cases, defense counsel for retarded and otherwise mentally disabled clients submit extensive medical tests. Ignoring the absence of complete neurological exams, supporters of the deadly decisions by Judge Greer and the trail of appellate jurists keep reminding us how extensive the litigation in this case has been—19 judges in six courts is the mantra. And more have been added. So too in many death penalty cases, but increasingly, close to execution, inmates have been saved by DNA.

As David Gibbs, the lawyer for Terri's parents, has pointed out, there has been a manifest need for a new federal, Fourteenth Amendment review of the case because Terri's death sentence has been based on seven years of "fatally flawed" state court findings—all based on the invincible neglect of elementary due process by Judge George Greer.

I will be returning to the legacy of Terri Schiavo in the weeks ahead because there will certainly be long-term reverberations from this case and its fracturing of the rule of law in the Florida courts and then the federal courts—as well as the disgracefully ignorant coverage of the case by the great majority of the media, including such pillars of the trade as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Miami Herald, and the Los Angeles Times as they copied each other's misinformation, like Terri Schiavo being "in a persistent vegetative state."

Do you know that nearly every major disability rights organization in the country has filed a legal brief in support of Terri's right to live?

But before I go back to other Liberty Beats—the CIA's torture renditions and the whitewashing of the landmark ACLU and Human Rights First's lawsuit against Donald Rumsfeld for his accountability in the widespread abuse of detainees, including evidence of torture—I must correct the media and various "qualified experts" on how a person dies of dehydration if he or she is sentient, as Terri Schiavo demonstrably is.

On March 15's Nightline, in an appallingly one-sided, distorted account of the Schiavo case, Terri's husband, Michael—who'd like to marry the woman he's now living with—said that once Terri's feeding tube is removed at his insistent command, Terri "will drift off into a nice little sleep and eventually pass on and be with God."

As an atheist, I cannot speak to what he describes as his abandoned wife's ultimate destination, but I can tell how Wesley Smith (consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture)—whom I often consult on these bitterly controversial cases because of his carefully researched books and articles—describes death by dehydration.

In his book Forced Exit (Times Books), Wesley quotes neurologist William Burke: "A conscious person would feel it [dehydration] just as you and I would. . . . Their skin cracks, their tongue cracks, their lips crack. They may have nosebleeds because of the drying of the mucous membranes, and heaving and vomiting might ensue because of the drying out of the stomach lining.

"They feel the pangs of hunger and thirst. Imagine going one day without a glass of water! . . . It is an extremely agonizing death."

On March 23, outside the hospice where Terri Schiavo was growing steadily weaker, her mother, Mary, said to the courts and to anyone who would listen and maybe somehow save her daughter:

"Please stop this cruelty!"

While this cruelty was going on in the hospice, Michael Schiavo's serpentine lawyer, George Felos, said to one and all: "Terri is stable, peaceful, and calm. . . . She looked beautiful."
During the March 21 hearing before Federal Judge James D. Whittemore, who was soon to be another accomplice in the dehydration of Terri, the relentless Mr. Felos, anticipating the end of the deathwatch, said to the judge:

"Yes, life is sacred, but so is liberty, your honor, especially in this country."
It would be useless, but nonetheless, I would like to inform George Felos that, as Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas said: "The history of liberty is the history of due process"—fundamental fairness.

Contrary to what you've read and seen in most of the media, due process has been lethally absent in Terri Schiavo's long merciless journey through the American court system.
"As to legal concerns," writes William Anderson—a senior psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and a lecturer at Harvard University—"a guardian may refuse any medical treatment, but drinking water is not such a procedure. It is not within the power of a guardian to withhold, and not in the power of a rational court to prohibit."

Ralph Nader agrees. In a statement on March 24, he and Wesley Smith (author of, among other books, Culture of Death: The Assault of Medical Ethics in America) said: "The court is imposing process over justice. After the first trial [before Judge Greer], much evidence has been produced that should allow for a new trial—which was the point of the hasty federal legislation.
"If this were a death penalty case, this evidence would demand reconsideration. Yet, an innocent, disabled woman is receiving less justice. . . . This case is rife with doubt. Justice demands that Terri be permitted to live." (Emphasis added.)

But the polls around the country cried out that a considerable majority of Americans wanted her to die without Congress butting in.

A March 20 ABC poll showed that 60 percent of the 501 adults consulted opposed the ultimately unsuccessful federal legislation, and only 35 percent approved. Moreover, 70 percent felt strongly that it was wrong for Congress to get into such personal, private matters—and interfere with what some advocates of euthanasia call "death with dignity." (So much for the Fourteenth Amendment's guarantee of due process and equal protection of the laws.)
But, as Cathy Cleaver Ruse of the Secretariat for Pro-Life Activities of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops pointed out:

"The poll [questions] say she's 'on life support,' which is not true [since all she needs is water], and that she has 'no consciousness,' which her family and dozens of doctors dispute in sworn affidavits."

Many readers of this column are pro-choice, pro-abortion rights. But what choice did Terri Schiavo have under our vaunted rule of law—which the president is eagerly trying to export to the rest of the world? She had not left a living will or a durable power of attorney, and so could not speak for herself. But the American system of justice would not slake her thirst as she, on television, was dying in front of us all.

What kind of a nation are we becoming? The CIA outsources torture—in violation of American and international law—in the name of the freedoms we are fighting to protect against terrorism. And we have watched as this woman, whose only crime is that she is disabled, is tortured to death by judges, all the way to the Supreme Court.

And keep in mind from the Ralph Nader-Wesley Smith report: "The courts . . . have [also] ordered that no attempts be made to provide her water or food by mouth. Terri swallows her own saliva. Spoon feeding is not medical treatment. This outrageous order proves that the courts are not merely permitting medical treatment to be withheld, they have ordered her to be made dead."

In this country, even condemned serial killers are not executed in this way.

http://villagevoice.com/news/0513,hentoff,62489,6.html

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Spring's Mystery

Here the story is slightly different. Up north in the high altitude, the sky is completely barren, not a single cloud is visible from one stretch to the other, and the sunlight, warm but not so discomfortingly blazing, is poring over the dead leaves and melting snow residues. Spring is here. With all the candor and manifested beauty spring has emerged after a winter of cold filled misery.

Hurrah to the renewal of life! Hurrah to nature's poetic gist!

"Death's great battle" -- writes James Carroll in his latest musing, and the death's great battle hankering down countless many, but like the spring's renewing of leaves and trees and the beginning of blossoming of little buds of flowers peeking through dead flowers and dried leaves and twigs of the past, decorating an aura of life, motioning in full circle around death, nature's final destination.

A huge earthquake jolts the islands of Sumatra, killing hundreds, perhaps even thousands, sending uncontrollable fear among the desperate human beings, the panic stricken faces still bear the painful memories of unforgettable tsunami that devastated the same region only a few months ago. Here the spring has different meaning.

Tragedy is our native language -- muses Carroll -- tragedy shapes our thoughts and perception of life, from individual to individual, perhaps depending on how each of us are exposed to tragedy, and how much our mind wishes to erase the painful agonies of reminiscing these memories. We toss and turn in bed, agitating and perspiring seeing the tragic past revisiting us in dreams -- nightmares -- sufferings of an emaciated dying lady and blown apart Iraqi children -- rows of dead bodies in Banda Aceh after the tsunami -- fire engulfing heroic firefighters -- and the collapsing buildings, speckles like human beings diving in the air from high rises to the last rite of their individual sanctimony in that unforgettable September -- and famished eyes of starved and dehydrated children in the cradle of her emaciated mother brings back our attention to that disabled lady, Terri, dying in a controlled environment under the watchful attention of world citizenry.

Spring is here with its full vigor. Renewal of nature, leaves, flowers, trees and the pollen thickened air, fragrance of life and beauty stoke our sensibilities to embrace life even in the face of unfolding tragedies and historical injustice. We are the lucky ones. For the majority of world populace, spring is here for the constant reminder of struggles in life in the coming days and nights of abstruse distress .

Regards,
Sohel


Spring's Mystery

By James Carroll


A SOFT RAIN is falling outside the window. Drops of water glisten on the branches and twigs. Each drop, you see now, clings to a bud, magnifying the tiny crimson knots, which are the year's way of saying -- the spring returns. Leaves are being born. Blossoms exist already, inside their tiny shells. Life begins anew. The tree's job, with the rain's help, is to show it. Your job is to notice.

If this were the first time you had ever seen living buds appear on a dead twig, you would know too little of the mystery. You would think -- aha, life is victorious over death. The hurt world is recovering. The wars are ending. Suffering is becoming passionate delight. All is well. But because you have seen this manifestation again and again, and because you know what else happens in the cycle of the year, your welcome of the spring return is complex.

Relief is proper to this time of year, and so are the sensual joys of perception -- warmth on the skin, perfumes of the air, the sudden sight of robins, the illuminated world. Yet every such signal of rebirth comes with its own contradiction, which makes it all the more precious. This complexity of death and life together, stretched across a realm defined by the movement of planets and stars, is what you call time. Time is the cosmos. Time is your native country.

Human beings have a built-in tendency to imagine life and death as opposite forces in conflict with one another. If, across the stretch of the year, life and death seem equal, each with its season of triumph, the human story is not so simple.

Accidents, illness, the purity of aging all mean that, person by person, death has the final word in the human story. And humans, apparently unlike other creatures, know it. Tragedy, therefore, is your native language.

Every individual's story, unlike the springtime narrative of eternal return, proposes the recognition that death is more powerful than life. It feels right, therefore, to treat death as the enemy. Every person leaves the world as the victim, so it seems, of a betrayal. How can death's inevitability not be terrifying? How, when it strikes first at your beloved ones, can you not be left bereft? But there is something in your very awareness of all of this that changes the meaning of such experience. You are the creature that looks out the window and, seeing a drop of water on a nascent bud, insists on seeing something more. Seeing this. You know what pain feels like, and are also capable of grief, but the pinch of such experience awakens a broader consciousness that is not defined by the narrow limits of time. You call it memory, which is a way of knowing that is every bit as vivid as sense perception.

Indeed, memory and sense perception quicken each other, so the present and the past are never apart, and what they constantly create together is a picture of your future. The future, even at the moment of death, is always there. This is the interior world of time, and it is as real to you as the world of light and aroma, of loss and renewal. Human consciousness is itself the transformation of human limits. You imagine an afterlife, and you either accept it or reject it as defining some kind of literal experience.

The idea has been a common antidote to death. You know that human beings have invoked the notion of ''God" here, as if the only way to make sense of death is to imagine being magically plucked from it. No loss. No grief. ''God" solves the human problem just by removing it. But what if the human triumph over death consists simply in the knowledge of it? What if the ''other world" for which you long exists already in the contemplation of mortality, an interior world out of which this train of thought is coming?

Perhaps the awareness that you take so for granted, what enables you to follow this chain of words, is itself already an opening to a grandeur that remains.

You and yours have been mightily obsessed with the end of life lately. The news is full of death's great battle, which has a way of making all humans foolish and sad. But close attention to the improbable truth of attention itself, sparked by a little water on the black branch outside the window, can lead to an absolute affirmation of life. Life to the full.

James Carroll's column appears regularly in the Globe.

Monday, March 28, 2005

In Battling Cancer, a Genome Project Is Proposed

In Battling Cancer, a Genome Project Is Proposed

By ANDREW POLLACK


pening a new front in the battle against cancer, federal officials are planning to compile a complete catalog of the genetic abnormalities that characterize it.

The proposed Human Cancer Genome Project, as it is being called for now, would be greater in scale than the Human Genome Project, which mapped the human genetic blueprint. It would seek to determine the DNA sequence of thousands of tumor samples, looking for mutations that give rise to cancer or sustain it.

Proponents say a databank of all such mutations, which would be freely available to researchers, would provide invaluable clues for developing new ways to diagnose, treat and prevent cancer.
"Knowing the defects of the cancer cell points you to the Achilles' heel of tumors," said Dr. Eric S. Lander, director of the Broad Institute, a genetic research center in Cambridge, Mass., that is affiliated with Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The project would cost roughly $1.35 billion over nine years, but where the money will come from is still uncertain. For now, the government is likely to start with some smaller pilot projects, officials said.

Some scientists are dubious about the cost and are concerned that a big science project could take money away from smaller ones run by individual scientists.

Dr. J. Craig Venter, who led a private project to determine the human DNA blueprint in competition with the Human Genome Project, said it would make more sense to look at specific families of genes known to be involved in cancer.

"Diverting a billion or two dollars from other areas of research when it's not clear what answer we'd get, there might be better ways to move cancer research forward," Dr. Venter said.

But Dr. Lander and other proponents say the time is right for such an effort because the Human Genome Project has provided the underlying human DNA sequence with which tumor cells can be compared. In addition, the cost of sequencing is dropping. And discoveries of individual cancer-related genes have already helped lead to new drug therapies.

The proposal, presented last month to an advisory committee to the National Cancer Institute, was drawn up by a group led by Dr. Lander and Dr. Leland H. Hartwell, a Nobel laureate who is president of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle. Drafters included Dr. Harold Varmus, a Nobel laureate and a former director of the National Institutes of Health, and Dr. Bruce Stillman, president of the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory on Long Island.

Dr. Varmus, president of the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York, said the project could "completely change how we approach cancer."

Leaders of two agencies within the National Institutes of Health that would likely take the lead in financing the project said they were eager to go ahead.

"We are committed to do the sequencing of the cancer genomes," Dr. Anna D. Barker, deputy director for advanced technologies and strategic partnerships at the National Cancer Institute, said in an interview. "What we're trying to do is accelerate progress against this disease."

Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, said, "I can confidently tell you that something will happen here."

The federal officials and Dr. Lander acknowledged that finding money for the project would be difficult in a time of tight budgets. They said that new money would probably have to be appropriated by Congress and that the pharmaceutical industry might contribute because the information would be useful for drug development.

The project, which might end up with a different name, would determine the sequence of the DNA in at least 12,500 tumor samples, 250 samples from each of 50 major types of cancer. By comparing the order of the letters of the genetic code in the tumor samples with one another and with sequences in healthy tissue, it should be possible to pinpoint mutations responsible for cancer.

But the proposition is extremely daunting. In general, each tumor cell holds a full panoply of human DNA, a string of three billion letters of the genetic code. So determining the full sequence of all the tumors would be the equivalent of 12,500 human genome projects. At a cost of many millions of dollars for one genome, the full project would be out of the question for now.

So the cancer proposal for now is to sequence only the active genes in tumors, which make up 1 percent to 2 percent of the DNA, Dr. Lander said. Even that would require at least 100 times as much sequencing as the Human Genome Project.

The work would cost nearly $1 million per tumor sample today, or a total of about $12.5 billion, according to the committee's proposal. The estimated cost of $1.35 billion is based on an expectation that sequencing costs will decline to one-tenth of what they are now in the next few years.

The Human Genome Project, now all but complete, cost $3 billion, but only about $300 million was spent on the actual DNA sequencing, with the rest going to development of technology.
"The technology available today would not be up to the task of doing this entire project," said Dr. Lander, who was a leader of the Human Genome Project. But he added, "The cost of sequencing is dropping enough that this is no longer unthinkable."

Indeed, he and Dr. Collins said, the project would promote further improvements in sequencing and show that it is still a useful technology.

"Some people have assumed that the genome project was over and sequencing wasn't worth investing in," said Dr. Collins, whose institute financed most of the Human Genome Project.
The Broad Institute, Dr. Lander's group, is a major DNA sequencing center and would presumably be a candidate for contracts for the cancer genome project. Many of the other people on the committee that put together the proposal represent institutions that might also receive grants from it.

There have already been some notable successes in using information about mutations to fight cancer, which is really a class of diseases in which cells in the body grow out of control because of the accumulation of mutations. While some of these mutations are inherited, most occur after a person is born.

Most cases of chronic myelogenous leukemia, a blood cancer, are caused by a particular chromosomal defect that leads to production of an aberrant protein. The drug Gleevec, which is designed to block this protein, has had remarkable success against this disease. Scientists have since found other genetic mutations that confer resistance to Gleevec, and companies are now using such information to design drugs to overcome that resistance.

The lung cancer drug Iressa can be very effective, but only in about 10 percent of patients who use it. Last year, scientists discovered that the drug seemed to work best in people whose tumors have mutations in a particular gene.

Just in the last few days, researchers led by Dr. D. Gary Gilliland of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston and Harvard reported that three types of leukemia appear to be caused by mutations in the same gene.

There are already some smaller projects under way looking for mutations, either in a particular type of cancer or in particular types of genes.

The Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute in Britain, a major participant in the Human Genome Project, has had a cancer genome program for several years. It has discovered a particular mutation in about two-thirds of cases of melanoma, a deadly skin cancer.

Scientists at Johns Hopkins University have unraveled some genetic changes involved in the origin of colon cancer. They are now working with Perlegen Sciences, a genomics company in California, on a comprehensive genetic scan of colorectal tumors.

But backers of the cancer genome project say faster progress could be made with one big, coordinated effort. And they say that despite the progress so far, scientists understand only a minority of the genetic changes involved in cancer.

There are other potential obstacles besides the cost of sequencing. One would be distinguishing which mutations are important, because many of those found would have nothing to do with cancer. The proposal says researchers should focus on mutations that occur in at least 5 percent of tumors of a certain type.

Yet another problem is that tumors can mutate so rapidly that two cells in the same tumor may have different mutations. So some mutations may be missed, depending which cells are used for the genetic analysis. "We can spend $2 billion on something and get a lot of data, but I'm not convinced it will do us much good," said Dr. Garth Anderson, an expert on cancer genetics at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.

And in some cases cancer is caused not by changes in the sequence of DNA but by so-called epigenetic changes, in which the attachment of a chemical to DNA turns off a gene.

"To concentrate only on mutations, you might pick up 50 percent of what you need to know or even less about what goes into the initiation and maintenance of cancer," said Dr. Stephen B. Baylin, a professor of oncology and medicine at Johns Hopkins.

The proposal for the project does mention looking for epigenetic changes, but says the technology to study them is not well developed.

Supporters of the project say that the barriers can be overcome and that the project should proceed.

"Whether it's practical, whether it's doable, how much it costs, I take that out of the picture," said Dr. Brian Druker, a professor at the Oregon Health and Science University who helped develop Gleevec and also served on the committee that drew up the proposal for the cancer genome project. "These are the starting blocks that we need to develop a cure."

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Morality and Reality

While Terri Schiavo slowly starved and dehydrated to death, it is agonizing to observe that the loved ones, the parents and siblings of this unfortunate lady getting tormented seeing their beloved child and sister slipping into the embrace of death. What is so wrong with this picture? Why is it so necessary remaining inflexible in the matter of "law", where the parents and siblings offered their unconditional support of taking care of their loved one, but the law is so torturous that it cannot allow feeding a disable lady. All the woes to that law!

Does the social conservative have invalid argument when they say that "if we make distinctions about the value of different lives, if we downgrade those who are physically alive but mentally incapacitated, if we say that some people can be more easily moved toward death than others, then the strong will prey upon the helpless, and the dignity of all our lives will be diminished"?

This is a vital issue. If the liberals are all concerned about death penalty, that absolutely should be abolished, why not applying the same logic in this case of life and death? Life is precious. Without going through the religious dogmas that so eloquently describe another existence beyond the earthly demise, why not cherishing each and every life and giving full attention in preserving life while ignoring artificial quality tag attached to individuality? Why is it so important putting that drivel "quality of life" being inserted in valuing terminally ill patient?

From my own very personal experience, I had seen what many doctors do when a patient is given the death sentence. "You have six months to live, Mr. X!" Open and shut case! Then begins subtle consultation of medical professionals, counselors who are not so disguised in slipping out those "mere suggestions": "He is not the same person you used to know. He is a very sick man. The better for him is to have a dignified death, a peaceful death." Without giving due regard that a terminally ill patient may not wish to relinquish his cherished life, that he may wish to fight to the end, these consultations grow in volume as days passed into weeks and months. The pressure builts into momentuous agonies that just increases the grief of the loved ones and the patient simultaneously.

Dehydration of a precious life is slowly unfolding under the watchful eyes of world media, and indeed there are more helpless innocent people dying from wars and violence, famine and other natural disasters around the world, but at the most basic level these are all connected. They are connected through our growing dehydration of humanity. Thus so our senses get numbs seeing men, women and children getting massacred in distant desert or tropical land, and thus so we don't flinch much from our place of comfort reading these grim news from around the world.

This is the reality of mighty indifference.

Regards,
Sohel

Morality and Reality

By DAVID BROOKS

The core belief that social conservatives bring to cases like Terri Schiavo's is that the value of each individual life is intrinsic. The value of a life doesn't depend upon what a person can physically do, experience or achieve. The life of a comatose person or a fetus has the same dignity and worth as the life of a fully functioning adult.

Social conservatives go on to say that if we make distinctions about the value of different lives, if we downgrade those who are physically alive but mentally incapacitated, if we say that some people can be more easily moved toward death than others, then the strong will prey upon the helpless, and the dignity of all our lives will be diminished.

The true bright line is not between lives, they say, but between life and death. The proper rule, as Robert P. George of Princeton puts it, should be, "Always to care, never to kill."

The weakness of the social conservative case is that for most of us, especially in these days of advanced medical technology, it is hard to ignore distinctions between different modes of living. In some hospital rooms, there are people living forms of existence that upon direct contact do seem even worse than death.

Moreover, most of us believe in transcendence, in life beyond this one. Therefore why is it so necessary to cling ferociously to this life? Why not allow the soul to ascend to whatever is in store for it?

The core belief that social liberals bring to cases like Ms. Schiavo's is that the quality of life is a fundamental human value. They don't emphasize the bright line between life and death; they describe a continuum between a fully lived life and a life that, by the sort of incapacity Terri Schiavo has suffered, is mere existence.

On one end of that continuum are those fortunate enough to be able to live fully - to decide and act, to experience the world and be free. On the other end are those who, tragically, can do none of these things, and who are merely existing.

Social liberals warn against vitalism, the elevation of physical existence over other values. They say it is up to each individual or family to draw their own line to define when life passes to mere existence.

The central weakness of the liberal case is that it is morally thin. Once you say that it is up to individuals or families to draw their own lines separating life from existence, and reasonable people will differ, then you are taking a fundamental issue out of the realm of morality and into the realm of relativism and mere taste.

You are saying, as liberals do say, that society should be neutral and allow people to make their own choices. You are saying, as liberals do say, that we should be tolerant and nonjudgmental toward people who make different choices.

What begins as an appealing notion - that life and death are joined by a continuum - becomes vapid mush, because we are all invited to punt when it comes time to do the hard job of standing up for common principles, arguing right and wrong, and judging those who make bad decisions.

You end up exactly where many liberals ended up this week, trying to shift arguments away from morality and on to process.

If you surveyed the avalanche of TV and print commentary that descended upon us this week, you found social conservatives would start the discussion with a moral argument about the sanctity of life, and then social liberals would immediately start talking about jurisdictions, legalisms, politics and procedures. They were more comfortable talking about at what level the decision should be taken than what the decision should be.

Then, if social conservatives tried to push their moral claims, you'd find liberals accusing them of turning this country into a theocracy - which is an effort to cast all moral arguments beyond the realm of polite conversation.

Once moral argument is abandoned, there are no ethical checks, no universal standards, and everything is left to the convenience and sentiments of the individual survivors.

What I'm describing here is the clash of two serious but flawed arguments. The socially conservative argument has tremendous moral force, but doesn't accord with the reality we see when we walk through a hospice. The socially liberal argument is pragmatic, but lacks moral force.

No wonder many of us feel agonized this week, betwixt and between, as that poor woman slowly dehydrates.

http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/26/opinion/26brooks.html

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Startling Scientists, Plant Fixes Its Flawed Gene


Quite a stunning discovery it is, putting more elements on the theory of Darwinian fitness widely accepted in the scientific world.


Regards,
Sohel

Startling Scientists, Plant Fixes Its Flawed Gene

By NICHOLAS WADE

In a startling discovery, geneticists at Purdue University say they have found plants that possess a corrected version of a defective gene inherited from both their parents, as if some handy backup copy with the right version had been made in the grandparents' generation or earlier.

The finding implies that some organisms may contain a cryptic backup copy of their genome that bypasses the usual mechanisms of heredity. If confirmed, it would represent an unprecedented exception to the laws of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel in the 19th century. Equally surprising, the cryptic genome appears not to be made of DNA, the standard hereditary material.

The discovery also raises interesting biological questions - including whether it gets in the way of evolution, which depends on mutations changing an organism rather than being put right by a backup system.

"It looks like a marvelous discovery," said Dr. Elliott Meyerowitz, a plant geneticist at the California Institute of Technology. Dr. David Haig, an evolutionary biologist at Harvard, described the finding as "a really strange and unexpected result," which would be important if the observation holds up and applies widely in nature.

The result, reported online yesterday in the journal Nature by Dr. Robert E. Pruitt, Dr. Susan J. Lolle and colleagues at Purdue, has been found in a single species, the mustardlike plant called arabidopsis that is the standard laboratory organism of plant geneticists. But there are hints that the same mechanism may occur in people, according to a commentary by Dr. Detlef Weigel of the Max-Planck Institute for Developmental Biology in Tübingen, Germany. Dr. Weigel describes the Purdue work as "a spectacular discovery."

The finding grew out of a research project started three years ago in which Dr. Pruitt and Dr. Lolle were trying to understand the genes that control the plant's outer skin, or cuticle. As part of the project, they were studying plants with a mutated gene that made the plant's petals and other floral organs clump together. Because each of the plant's two copies of the gene were in mutated form, they had virtually no chance of having normal offspring.

But up to 10 percent of the plants' offspring kept reverting to normal. Various rare events can make this happen, but none involve altering the actual sequence of DNA units in the gene. Yet when the researchers analyzed the mutated gene, known as hothead, they found it had changed, with the mutated DNA units being changed back to normal form.

"That was the moment when it was a complete shock," Dr. Pruitt said.

A mutated gene can be put right by various mechanisms that are already known, but all require a correct copy of the gene to be available to serve as the template. The Purdue team scanned the DNA of the entire arabidopsis genome for a second, cryptic copy of the hothead gene but could find none.

Dr. Pruitt and his colleagues argue that a correct template must exist, but because it is not in the form of DNA, it probably exists as RNA, DNA's close chemical cousin. RNA performs many important roles in the cell, and is the hereditary material of some viruses. But it is less stable than DNA, and so has been regarded as unsuitable for preserving the genetic information of higher organisms.

Dr. Pruitt said he favored the idea that there is an RNA backup copy for the entire genome, not just the hothead gene, and that it might be set in motion when the plant was under stress, as is the case with those having mutated hothead genes.

He and other experts said it was possible that an entire RNA backup copy of the genome could exist without being detected, especially since there has been no reason until now to look for it.

Scientific journals often take months or years to get comfortable with articles presenting novel ideas. But Nature accepted the paper within six weeks of receiving it. Dr. Christopher Surridge, a biology editor at Nature, said the finding had been discussed at scientific conferences for quite a while, with people saying it was impossible and proposing alternative explanations. But the authors had checked all these out and disposed of them, Dr. Surridge said.

As for their proposal of a backup RNA genome, "that is very much a hypothesis, and basically the least mad hypothesis for how this might be working," Dr. Surridge said.

Dr. Haig, the evolutionary biologist, said that the finding was fascinating but that it was too early to try to interpret it. He noted that if there was a cryptic template, it ought to be more resistant to mutation than the DNA it helps correct. Yet it is hard to make this case for RNA, which accumulates many more errors than DNA when it is copied by the cell.

He said that the mechanism, if confirmed, would be an unprecedented exception to Mendel's laws of inheritance, since the DNA sequence itself is changed. Imprinting, an odd feature of inheritance of which Dr. Haig is a leading student, involves inherited changes to the way certain genes are activated, not to the genes themselves.

The finding poses a puzzle for evolutionary theory because it corrects mutations, which evolution depends on as generators of novelty. Dr. Meyerowitz said he did not see this posing any problem for evolution because it seems to happen only rarely. "What keeps Darwinian evolution intact is that this only happens when there is something wrong," Dr. Surridge said.

The finding could undercut a leading theory of why sex is necessary. Some biologists say sex is needed to discard the mutations, almost all of them bad, that steadily accumulate on the genome. People inherit half of their genes from each parent, which allows the half left on the cutting room floor to carry away many bad mutations. Dr. Pruitt said the backup genome could be particularly useful for self-fertilizing plants, as arabidopsis is, since it could help avoid the adverse effects of inbreeding. It might also operate in the curious organisms known as bdelloid rotifers that are renowned for not having had sex for millions of years, an abstinence that would be expected to seriously threaten their Darwinian fitness.

Dr. Pruitt said it was not yet known if other organisms besides arabidopsis could possess the backup system. Colleagues had been quite receptive to the idea because "biologists have gotten used to the unexpected," he said, referring to a spate of novel mechanisms that have recently come to light, several involving RNA.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Echoes of Nazi Germany: Those Who Want to Execute Her have a Gruesome Prescedent

I certainly cannot recall if I had ever defended Patrick J. Buchanan's opinion on any political or social view. My glimpses toward his PBS commentaries or his being as a guest on CNN or other news media left me to have not so a favorable opinion on his political outlook. Let's face it, Mr. Buchannan is an arch conservative that is so radically contrary to my own lifelong yearning for liberal philosophy. However, after observing the recent stormy episodes regarding Terri Schiavo's case of life and death, reading a few so called liberal writers' commentaries in various newspapers and magazines, I have beginning to question some of these elite liberals' definition of liberalism.

Granted that evangelical conservatives are playing politics invoking the name of Terri Schiavo to further their other political and social goals, but so are the liberals (so called). The pain and anguish felt by the family of Terri Schiavo, including her parents and her husband are genuine, many of us who had gone through similar life and death episodes related to our beloved family members or dearest friends know it quite well what these sufferings can mean. In this particular case there is no living will of the patient, nor she can communicate effectively showing her desire to cease her earthly existence. However, for her family, parents and siblings and dearest friends, her pure survival resonates a deeper chord in their lives that most of us may find hard to fathom.

Terri Schiavo’s husband may be genuinely trying to provide a “dignified” end to her beloved wife, and indeed he had stayed steadfast beside her from the beginning of this ordeal for more than fifteen years now, the fact of the matter is that he does not possess any provable written consent from the lady of his life.

Human beings are wrought with frailties and imperfections. All these years of steadfastness and devotion and dedication toward a life partner who is not able to perform the expected conjugal life, surely may raise a toll amidst the most committed spouse. The tie that binds two human beings together in celebratory matrimony must be respected for all that it deserves, but the natural tie between a mother and her daughter should get similar, if not more, respect.

It may very well be that Patrick J. Buchanan have gone overboard, once again, comparing Nazi Germany and the saddening episode of Terri Schiavo, but she is indeed being starved to death though the “liberal” scientists, sociologists and politicians, all are trying to give a “dignity” on her on coming death. And that’s the opportunistic “liberalism”, quite similar to its counterpart espoused by the conservatives, have started to bother me lately.

Regards,
Sohel

ECHOES OF NAZI GERMANY: THOSE WHO WANT TO EXECUTE HER HAVE A GRUESOME PRECEDENT



Had Congress and President Bush not returned to Washington on Palm Sunday, America would have sent this message to the world:

Ours is a nation where a judge may not sentence Beltway sniper John Malvo to death because he is too young to die, but can sentence Terri Schiavo to death because she is too severely handicapped to live.

Before the Palm Sunday rescue, Schiavo was scheduled to die by starvation and dehydration, a method of capital punishment most would consider criminal if done to a pet.

This was the method used at Auschwitz to murder Father Maximilian Kolbe, the priest who volunteered to take the place of a Polish father of a large family, who was one of 10 the camp commandant had selected for execution in reprisal for the escape of a prisoner.

After being starved and dehydrated for days, Kolbe was injected by his Nazi captors with carbolic acid. He died a martyr's death, said the church that canonized him. That is what would have happened to Terri. Only she would have been denied the lethal injection by those watching her die.

That there arose a national outcry at the execution of Schiavo -- so loud Congress and President Bush heard it and came to the rescue -- is a sign America is not morally dead . . . yet. But a culture of death has taken deep root in America's soul.

One wonders if our young, so many of them cheated of a knowledge of history in schools they are forced to attend, are aware of how closely our elites approximate, in belief and argument, the elites of Weimar and Nazi Germany in the 1920s and 1930s.

In 1920, Dr. Alfred Hoche, professor of psychiatry at the University of Freiburg, and Karl Binding, a law professor at Leipzig, wrote ``The Permission to Destroy Life Unworthy of Life.'' They urged a national policy of assisted suicide for those ``empty shells of human beings'' -- the terminally ill and mentally retarded, and those with brain damage and psychiatric conditions.

When war came in 1939, a program code-named ``Aktion 4'' went about systematically eliminating all ``life unworthy of life'' in the Reich. By 1940, scores of thousands had been put to death.

Hitler's doctors may yet prove to be the medical pioneers of the 21st century.

PATRICK J. BUCHANAN is a syndicated columnist.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Religion in art? Nyet!

<>Religion in art? Boy! Those artists have guts, indeed! And in the middle of Russia where Mr. Putin is dismantling most recent progresses of Russia's march toward democracy. "Blasphemy" is the word that governments around the world utilize in suppressing individual or views of groups whose alternative perceptions on religions are not tolerated if these views become more noticeable to the general public. Blasphemy! Thus scream the Muslim extremists. Blasphemy! Thus shout the Christian bigots. And the Hindu fanatics cry out the same words in more derivative chanting, "Blasphemy!"




This word has so much energy in it, for the creation of a puritanical world where "blasphemy" and freedom could be mangled into discarded heap, pushed aside in a solitary corner for good.

Blasphemy!


Regards,
Sohel


Religion in art? Nyet!

CULTURE WARS over blasphemous art, such as Andres Serrano's urine-dipped crucifix or Chris Ofili's elephant dung-decorated Madonna, have flared up periodically in the United States in recent years. A similar conflict is now raging in post-Soviet Russia. But there, the debate is not about whether taxpayer money should be used for museum displays that offend some people's religious beliefs. It's about whether a provocative exhibition at a privately owned museum should be a crime with harsh penalties for the accused blasphemers.

The exhibition, called ''Caution: Religion!" opened in January 2003 at the Andrei Sakharov Museum and Center in Moscow. The works on display were pretty tame compared to some of their American counterparts. One controversial exhibit superimposed an image of Christ on a Coca-Cola logo, with the words, ''Coca-Cola. This is my blood" -- arguably, a pointed commentary on the commercialization of religion, not a mockery of faith itself. A triptych called ''In the Beginning Was the Word" juxtaposed images of a man crucified on a cross, a five-pointed star and a swastika, with accompanying quotations from the Gospels, ''The Communist Manifesto," and ''Mein Kampf."

Just a few days after its opening, the exhibition was vandalized by several followers of the ultra-right Russian Orthodox priest Alexander Shargunov. Exhibits were smashed and defaced, the walls spray-painted with curses. The assailants were detained by the police but quickly released and cleared. Meanwhile, acting on a complaint from Father Shargunov, the Russian parliament passed a resolution demanding that criminal charges be filed -- against the exhibition's organizers. And so Sakharov Museum director Yuri Samodurov, exhibition curator Ludmila Vasilovskaya, and artist Anna Mikhalchuk found themselves in the dock for ''incitement of ethnic, racial, or religious hatred." The trial ended on March 7, though the court decision will not be issued until March 28.

The case, which has received scant attention in the Western press, has many farcical elements. Thus, one painting deemed criminal by the prosecution's experts satirized the 19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky, a champion of nationalism and religious orthodoxy -- and now, it seems, a saint by government fiat, though he has yet to be canonized by any church. A work illustrating the seven deadly sins with scenes from the life of a typical Russian family (such as the ''sloth" of sitting in front of the television) was labeled as defamatory toward ethnic Russians. All this would be funny if the possible consequences weren't so serious.

In her closing statement, prosecutor Kira Gudim asked for three years' imprisonment in a penal colony for Samodurov and two-year sentences for his codefendants. She also asked that all three be barred for life from holding administrative jobs and that the offending artworks be destroyed.

Notably, Russia's Constitution includes ostensible protections for freedom of speech and conscience. Russian law specifically forbids displays insulting to religious sensibilities in close proximity to places of worship, which implies that they are legal elsewhere. But the Russian Constitution's guarantees may be on their way to becoming as meaningless as the Soviet Constitution was in its day.

Russia's human rights activists, such as Moscow Helsinki Watch group president Ludmila Alexeyeva and former Human Rights Commission chairman Sergei Kovalev, see the prosecution as a dangerous sign of Russia's descent into authoritarianism. They note that this is the first time since the 1966 trial of writers Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel that individuals in Russia have faced criminal charges solely for the content of their artistic works. However, political motivation is likely as well: The center has hosted numerous exhibitions critical of the war in Chechnya -- a fact that Father Shargunov's letter to the parliament cited as further proof of its subversive nature.

To Elena Bonner, Sakharov's widow and a human rights activist in her own right, these latest developments signal the rise of a new fascist state in Russia. If the case ends in conviction, it will be hard to dispute her pessimistic assessment. The old Soviet state vilified and persecuted religion; the new one is converting it into a quasi-official ideology. The hostility to true freedom remains a constant.

The absurd witch-hunt in Russia is a cautionary tale for the United States as well. If nothing else, it should show us the true worth of President Vladimir Putin's protestations that Russia is firmly on the road to democracy. It is also a demonstration of the dangers of hate speech laws, of criminalizing expression that offends people's sensibilities, and of equating criticism of religion with bigotry. These are relevant issues we face at home, too.

Cathy Young is a contributing editor at Reason magazine. Her column appears regularly in the Globe.

Saturday, March 19, 2005

In Life on the Mekong, China's Dams Dominate

Perhaps the situation is not up to China only. Other nations in the regions, far and close can play vital roles in putting a check on China's seemingly unstoppable streaks of controlling people's lives in downstream and upstream of its mighty river system. If the United Nations were really an effective organization, then it could have played the uniting force in solving the unmistakably volatile problem in this region, not only issues related to Mekong river, but also India's river linking system that can potentially devastate its downstream neighbor Bangladesh, and even India's own Southern States may suffer from its consequences and in most likelihood these seemingly benign issues of our days could one day become more contentious unless steps are taken before long.


Regards,
Sohel

In Life on the Mekong, China's Dams Dominate

Erosion has worsened along the Mekong, clouding the river, because the natural flow is often given added force when dams are opened.
Chien-min Chung for The New York Times
Erosion has worsened along the Mekong, clouding the river, because the natural flow is often given added force when dams are opened.

CHINA'S REACH: THE TROUBLE DOWNSTREAM

In Life on the Mekong, China's Dams Dominate

By JANE PERLEZ

CHIANG KHONG, Thailand - For countless generations, fishermen along the Mekong River have passed their lore and way of life from father to son: the rhythms of the water, the habits of the many kinds of fish, the best nets and traps to use to survive and prosper.

But Sri Sumwantha, 70, one of the old men of Asia's majestic river, has left his delicate pirogue tied up at the riverbank for longer stretches than usual. Through green bamboo stands, he has watched the caramel-colored current slow and surge unpredictably and his catch diminish. Now, he worries how much longer his family can live off the river.

The reason is China. China's ravenous appetite for hydroelectric power at home and its thrust southward into Southeast Asia in search of trade is changing the very character of the Mekong. This is true not only in China itself, but also for the five nations and 60 million rural people downstream for whom the great river serves as their life's blood.

Several hundred miles upstream from Sri Sumwantha's simple home, China has completed two dams. It is pushing ahead with three more and has three others on the drawing board. Just about 70 miles away from here, China has blasted reefs and rocks at the border of Laos and Myanmar to clear the way for its trading vessels to reach new markets deep into Laos.

The effects of the river projects that serve China's colossal upstream ambitions have been visible for several years, but are growing more worrying, say conservationists and those who live on the river.

The fish species found in this stretch of the Mekong in northern Thailand dwindled from 100 to only 88 last year, said Sayan Khamnueng, a researcher with the Southeast Asia River Network, an environmental group.

Water levels and temperatures have fluctuated widely, threatening the river environment and disrupting the livelihoods of the fishermen and others who depend on the $2 billion annual catch of migratory fish.

For the fishermen, their revered river, once nearly untouched and steady in its moods, has turned into a fickle sea. "In the past the river was up and down like nature - every three or four days up and down," said Tan Inkew, 72, a fisherman who lives in Meung Kan village. "Now the river is like the sea - up and down, up and down very quickly."

Protests by Mr. Tan and other fishermen helped persuade the Thai government to stop China from blasting the rapids in Thai waters near his home, between the port of Chiang Saen and Chiang Khong.

"We protested outside the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok," Mr. Tan recalled. "We told them to stop blasting - and if they don't stop, we'll fight them."

Still, he worries about the impact of China's dams as well. His recalled how his son was recently out on the water for nine hours but "did not catch one thing."

While Mr. Tan and his neighbors may have scored a small victory, clearly China cannot be kept at bay for long. The Mekong has been protected through the ages by a lack of development, and more recently by wars in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, as it winds its way on a brawling 2,870-mile journey from the Tibetan plateau to its delta in Vietnam.

But today the countries downstream from China - Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam - have settled into an era of relative peace and have shed their old fears of China, indeed, are currying favor. Booming Thailand is seeking more trade with China. Impoverished Laos and Cambodia want China's aid to kick-start their economies. Myanmar shares China's passion for hydropower to supply future growth.

"China seems to be doing this with impunity," said Aviva Imhof, director of Southeast Asia programs at International Rivers Network, a nongovernmental group in Berkeley, Calif. "The Mekong is slowly being strangled to death. Why aren't the downstream governments challenging China's activities?"

The concern extends beyond environmental groups and fishermen.

Ted Osius, until recently the State Department's regional environmental affairs officer and once a senior White House adviser to Vice President Al Gore, suggests that an unchecked China could turn the Mekong into an ecological disaster, akin to the Yellow River and the Yangtze River.

"China has a poor record on river protection," Mr. Osius said in a speech in Bangkok, noting that 80 percent of the Yangtze's historic flood plain has already been cut off by a dike and levee system.

Today China's economic and political power along the Mekong is unrivaled. More than ever, it is being strengthened and extended through growing trade and diplomatic ties and its use of new multilateral tools, like the Asian Development Bank.

The bank, a major lender for poverty alleviation, was until now dominated by Japan. China contributed to its capital fund for the first time in 2004 - gaining more power over how the bank's loans are distributed. The impact was immediate.

The bank added a new vice president, Jin Liqun, a former deputy finance minister in Beijing. Most important, the bank's grand plan for roads, bridges and a telecommunications network to knit southern China together with the five other Mekong River countries - a plan 10 years in abeyance - got a quick boost.

Long-stalled work was suddenly under way on a 152-mile road from Yunnan Province across untamed territory to Houey Xai, a Laotian river town just a few hundred yards across the Mekong from Sri Sumwantha's village. Although relatively short, the road provides the vital link to China.

A bridge is also in the works to replace the little ferryboats now used to cross the river. By the end of the decade, China could be connected by roads that cross the Mekong, head down to Bangkok and then run on to Malaysia and finally Singapore.

"China's donation gives them a seat at the donor's table," said Bruce Murray, the bank's representative in Beijing. "When they give, donors always have a certain agenda."

China's new clout can be felt on other important projects as well.

One of the most controversial is a $1.3 billion dam proposed for the Theun River, a major Mekong tributary in Laos, a plan that has been fought over for more than a decade.

The World Bank is expected to approve loan guarantees for the dam in March. American diplomats say they have quietly supported the World Bank's role - its first dam project in a decade - for fear that otherwise China will step in.

"The Laotians have told the World Bank that if the bank does not guarantee the dam and make it go ahead, they will turn to the Chinese," an American official said. The United States is reluctant to have China build and manage one of Southeast Asia's biggest dams, he said.

China, diplomats and conservationists say, would be much less fussy about the dam's impact than the consortium seeking World Bank support, led by Electricity Generating Authority Thailand (EGAT) and France's state-owned Electricité de France.

Here in Chiang Khong, where the fishermen's bamboo houses are nestled along the banks, the changes to the river that China has already made are quickly causing a way of life to recede, along with the bounty of the Mekong's waters.

Mr. Sayan, of the Southeast Asian River Network, said fishermen had stopped selling their fish at the main market in Chiang Rai. "They don't have enough," he said.

In extreme cases, the fishermen have given up and become laborers, unloading the trading vessels from China that dock at Chiang Saen, laden with fruits and vegetables, electronics and cheap garments. "As laborers they become impoverished and are miserable," said Chainarong Srettachau, the director of the river network.

Some fishermen have begun supplementing their incomes with crops. But crops are being hurt, too. China's upstream dams are also holding back as much as 50 percent of the fertile silt that is essential to the soil and that normally flows down river, according to conservationists.

Erosion is also worsening. At Pak Ing, a small village near Chiang Khong, fishermen pointed to a 12-foot-high wall of exposed soil, a muddy mini-cliff where the water, flowing faster because of blasting of the rapids, has cut into once gently sloping riverbanks. The next step will be to erect concrete banks to hold back the land.

Farther downstream, the effects may be even more severe. In Cambodia, an intricate ecology and age-old economy depend on the ebb and flow of the great lake fed by the Mekong, Tonle Sap, which can swell fourfold during the rainy season. The rhythm of life is built around the seasonal tides and the bounty that the waters provide.

The fish catch dropped by almost 50 percent last year, according to the Mekong River Commission. In many areas, the low catches were caused by the sudden fluctuations that occurred when dams in China released water to allow easier passage for trading vessels, said Milton Osborne, an Australian historian and an expert on the Mekong.

The water from the dams is also much colder than the water downstream, affecting the fish, which are extremely sensitive to changes in temperature, Mr. Osborne wrote last year in a paper titled "River at Risk" for the Lowy Institute, a public policy group in Sydney.

Large species in particular had fallen off, he said. The outlook for the river and its vast ecosystem was not promising, he added.

"Because of the enormous imbalance of power between China and the downstream countries," he said, "it is highly unlikely that there will be a halt to China's projected dam building program on the Mekong."

But Mr. Chainarong of the river network was less pessimistic.

"Two or three years ago, people said we would never be able to stop China blasting the Mekong inside Thailand," he said. "But we did."

"One good thing," he noted, "is that China doesn't want to have conflict downstream. That's the challenge. The situation is up to China: does it want to go friendly or hostile?"