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From The Countries

Burning Indians; Japanese getting older; eugenic Chinese

Quinacrine in India

Dr. Biral Mullick has begun sterilizing women from Calcutta and surrounding villages with quinacrine, even though the World Health Organization and female health groups warn that the method is unapproved and risky. According to the Sunday Times of India, poor women in Calcutta are initially lured into trying the procedure because of its affordability the paper quotes a price of 35 rupees — and relative ease of use. “What these women do not know,” the Times reports, ‘“is that they are guinea pigs being used to test the efficacy of the drug; that they have been subjected a method not approved by any drug regulatory agency in the world. .

According to Puneet Budim, an Indian gynecologist, none of these women in Mullick’s and other clinics in the country are told they are part of a trial or what the risks might be. She alleges that they come into the clinics looking for a Copper T intrauterine device but walk out burned by the acid the tablets create when inserted into the womb. “Scores of private doctors and NGO’s across the country, including a prominent doctor politician from Delhi, are involved in this unethical practice,” Budim said. “It’s a very disturbing development.” (The Sunday Times of India, 16 March 1997).

Australian law quashed

On March 24th, Australia’s parliament overturned the world’s only euthanasia law, some nine months after the country’s Northern Territory had first passed it.

In quashing the law, the parliament took the legal, but nonetheless extraordinary step of overriding the laws of a territory.

During the law’s tenure a total of 5 persons were euthanized. (Reuters, Canberra, Australia, 24 March.)

Japanese aging rapidly

Japan’s population is even more rapidly aging and declining than had been previously estimated, according to a new study released in January by the Ministry of Health and Welfare’s Institute of Population and Social Security Research. The gloomy projections do not bode well for the country, which is already confronted with an unfavorable economic outlook. According to the Institute, Japan’s population will peak at about 128 million in 2007, and then decline steadily to 100 million by 2050. The latest estimate is based on demographic projections from an analysis of the 1995 population census, the birth rate and life expectancy. (The estimate is in line with the country’s “medium variant” projection in the recently released World Population Prospects report of the UN; the “low variant” estimate, which is perhaps a more likely one, projects a somewhat taster decline to a 2050 population below 100 million.)

The number of people over 65 will increase to 32 million by 2015. a quarter of the population (compared with 15 percent at present), while the working-age population that has to support them, will fall from 87 to 76 million. The working population will continue to steadily decline — thereafter, falling to only 55 million — half the population” in 2050.

These pessimistic projections are driven by a declining birth rate, which fell in 1995 to a record low of just 1.42 children per woman per completed reproductive lifetime. The Institute predicts a further fall to 1.38 in the year 2000, and then a gradual rise to 1.60 by 2022. (An earlier survey in 1992. which had predicted a similar recovery in the birth rate, has so far been proven wrong.)

The aging population, coupled with a rapidly declining work force, will put an enormous strain on the national health-insurance system, which is already destined to plunge deeply into the red. (Nature, 30 January, 379.)

Gene hunting in China

In most of the world, choosing to have a baby is a private matter for two people. Not in China. There the government literally gets in bed with the couple, regulating how many children they can have (usually just one), the relatively late ages at which marriages will be permitted (the mid-twenties) and, most recently, the “quality” of the expected offspring.

Under the 1995 Chinese Law on Maternal and Infant Health Care, if a married couple suffers from a genetic disease “of a serious nature,” the couple “shall take measures in accordance with… medical advice.” Other provisions of the law make plain what measures might be appropriate: Couples with genetic diseases “considered to be inappropriate for childbearing” might be married only if both agree to practice “long-term contraception,” a euphemism for sterilization.

Ignoring these human rights violations, several Western biotechnology companies have established joint ventures in China to search out which genes are contributing to various diseases and disorders. The French genetics company Genset has teamed up with the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences to conduct such gene surveys. Sequana Therapeutics of California has also gone gene hunting in China. Both companies have told disapproving critics that all donors screened will give them informed consent and all of the blood samples collected, “will be anonymous.”

With China’s population control leaders on record as condemning the births of “interior quality” babies, many of the world’s leading geneticists remain skeptical as of the government’s purpose. (Scientific American, March, 33-4.)

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