News Ireland daily BLOG by Donie

Tuesday/Wednesday 16 & 17th December 2014

8th amendment existing abortion laws are too restrictive says Leo Varadkar


Minister for Health says eighth amendment still exerts a ‘chilling effect on doctors’

Minister for Health Leo Varadkar: “Speaking today as Minister for Health, and also as a medical doctor, and knowing now all that I do now, it is my considered view that the eighth amendment is too restrictive.

  The Minister for Health Leo Varadkar has said the constitutional restrictions on abortion are too “restrictive” and have a “chilling effect” on doctors.

Speaking in the Dáil on a private members’ bill tabled byClare Daly, Mr Varadkar outlined his position on the eighth amendment, which gives equal rights to the mother and the unborn and advocated a more liberal abortion regime.

However, Mr Varadkar, while in favour of change, said the current Government has no mandate to change the current law, which would have to be done by referendum, and said he has no right to impose his own views.

He also said he does not “support abortion on request or on demand”.

“Speaking as Minister for Health, and also as a medical doctor, and knowing now all that I do now, it is my considered view that the eighth amendment is too restrictive,” he said.

“While it protects the right to life of the mother, it has no regard for her long-term health. If a stroke, heart attack, epileptic seizure happens, perhaps resulting in permanent disability as a result, then that is acceptable under our laws. I don’t think that’s right.”

Also in the speech, Mr Varadkar expressed support for abortion in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities.

“Similarly, it forces couples to bring to term a child that has no chance of survival for long outside the womb if at all. Forcing them, against their own judgement, to explain for weeks and months to all enquirers that their baby is dead.

“I have been present at stillbirths. I know it can be handled well and sensitively but I do not believe anything is served by requiring women or couples to continue with such pregnancies should they not wish to do so when there is no chance of the baby surviving.

“The eighth amendment continues to exert a chilling effect on doctors. Difficult decisions that should be made by women and their doctors, a couple or the next-of-kin where there is no capacity, and on the basis of best clinical practice, are now made on foot of legal advice. That isn’t how it should be.”

He said decisions to change the law cannot be rushed, but argued that it is time to ensure that the “politics of the ‘Moral Civil War’ are consigned to history as well”.

“Ministers for Health do not just represent their own private views, they are guardians of the nation’s healthcare, and must work to protect and safeguard all of its citizens,” the Dublin West TD said. “But perhaps people may be interested in where I am coming from.

“I consider myself to be pro-life in that I accept that the unborn child is a human life with rights. I cannot, therefore, accept the view that it is a simple matter of choice. There are two lives involved in any pregnancy. For that reason, like most people in the country, I do not support abortion on request or on demand.”

Threshold housing charity calls for a rental sector strategy


Housing charity Threshold has said the Government needs to urgently introduce a national strategy on private rented housing so as to keep more families from becoming homeless.

The organisation said the housing situation had been “transformed” due to the economic crash, with more and more households on the brink of homelessness due to soaring rental costs.

Threshold published its annual report yesterday and said that, last year, it was “not uncommon” for some clients to be facing increases in rent of up to 40%.

Chief executive Bob Jordan said a 10% increase in urban rent supplement limits in June of last year had done little to stem the tide.

“Safety nets have disappeared during the economic downturn and many families now face the same risk of homelessness as single people,” he said.

Threshold claimed many tenants were now “caught in the crossfire” between landlords and bank-appointed receivers, while the report also highlighted problems with illegal deposit retention, substandard accommodation, and issues with leases, among other concerns.

The report also focused on the decade since the introduction of the Residential Tenancies Act 2004, pointing out that deposit retention has been the single largest issue for people contacting it over the past decade — accounting for 27,000 queries, including 1,930 last year.

Illegal evictions rose last year to 651, its highest annual level since 2009, while client contacts regarding living standards and repairs was at its second-highest level in a decade, at 2,098. There were 580 contacts last year regarding rent arrears.

Senator Aideen Hayden, also the chairwoman of Threshold, said the private rental sector was “no longer fit for purpose”.

The report states: “We are no longer a nation of homeowners and the private rented sector is the only housing option for many people in our country, with one in five families now renting from a private landlord.”

Threshold said measures need to be implemented immediately, including:

– Changing rent regulation measures in the Residential Tenancies Act 2004 to provide certainty regarding the rate of increase in rents;

– A review of rent supplement limits in line with market rent levels, with payment in advance rather than in arrears;

– Delivery on the government commitment to a deposit protection scheme, as well as quicker roll-out of the Housing Assistance Payment and facilitating the payment of deposits through exceptional needs payments.

Meanwhile, the Peter McVerry Trust and Saint Gobain, a global building materials supplier, announced that a building in Dublin 8 with six apartments has been refurbished thanks to a €100,000 donation by St Gobain.

It is expected that as many as 120 people a year could benefit from having the building available, with the Peter McVerry Trust calling on other firms to follow St Gobain’s example and contribute directly to efforts to fight homelessness.

It came as Focus Ireland warned that another 42 families became homeless in Dublin in November.

Focus Ireland said the Government must raise rent supplement payments and increase rent regulation immediately to prevent more families from slipping into homelessness.

Sharp drop in oil price as sanctions pile pressure on Moscow


Interest rate move failed to support rouble but could affect consumer spending

Russia is braced for more financial turmoil after a major interest rate hike failed to stop a sharp slide in the value of the rouble, and plunging oil prices and western sanctions continued to undermine confidence in the country’s economy.

The rouble enjoyed a brief surge following an overnight decision by Russia’s central bank to raise its key interest rate to 17 per cent from 10.5 per cent, but the sell-off quickly resumed as oil tracked lower.

The currency slipped to 100 against the euro and 80 to the US dollar, before recouping some value after US secretary of state John Kerry praised recent “constructive moves” by Russia in conflict-torn Ukraine.

Many analysts saw the uptick as only brief respite, however, and predicted that the rouble – which has shed more than half its value against the US dollar this year – would remain under heavy pressure until oil prices rebounded from levels last seen in 2009.

“The situation is critical. What is happening could not be imagined even in our nightmares a year ago,” said Sergei Shvetsov, a deputy chairman of the central bank.

Problems ahead

“The choice . . . the central bank made was a choice between the very bad and the very, very bad,” Mr Shvetsov said of an interest rate hike that failed to support the rouble.

“There are many problems. In the days ahead, I think the situation will be comparable with the toughest period of 2008. I think the experience gained through many crises will help us to find the right solution and survive this situation.”

The major oil-producing states of Opec, of which Russia is not a member, have rejected talk of a cut in production to support prices, leaving Moscow to face the prospect of a sharp fall in revenues that could severely strain the state budget.

Russia relies on oil and gas revenue to finance more than half its budget, and government spending plans are built around a predicted oil price of $100 a barrel; oil was last night trading below $60 a barrel, having lost almost half its value since June.

As well as driving up prices and fuelling Russians’ fears of a repeat of the devastating 1998 financial crash, rouble weakness makes it more costly to service foreign debt repayments that are due to hit $120 billion (€96 billion) next year.

Worst performer

The country’s main stock market plunged more than 12 per cent during trading yesterday and, as the rouble replaced Ukraine’s hryvnia as this year’s worst performing currency, analysts said the central bank may soon limit the withdrawal of foreign currency.

More than $100 billion has left Russia in capital flight this year, as its economy slowed dramatically and the West imposed sanctions over Moscow’s annexation of Crimea and its support for separatist rebels in Ukraine.

Russian officials said there were no plans to introduce capital controls, however, and the state still has more than $400 billion in foreign currency reserves, despite having spent almost $100 billion propping up the rouble this year.

Tim Ash, head of emerging markets research at Standard Bank, said the credibility of Russia’s central bank was in question after “the most incredible currency collapse I think I have seen in 17 years in the market and 26 years” covering Russia and ex-Soviet states.

These are the five ‘simple and effective’ ways to reduce your risk of dementia


Age UK undertook an evidence review and found that over 75% of cognitive decline is caused by lifestyle factors

It may be possible to prevent the onset of Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia by making basic lifestyle changes, according to new analysis.

Age UK identified five “simple and effective ways” to reduce the risk of developing the devastating disease. These were regular physical exercise, eating a Mediterranean diet, not smoking, drinking alcohol in moderation and preventing and treating diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity.

The charity reviewed academic studies and data and found that about 76 per cent of cognitive decline is accounted for by lifestyle and other factors, including level of education.

In one UK study carried out over 30 years ago it was found that men aged between 45 and 59 who followed four to five of the identified lifestyle factors were found to have a 36 per cent lower risk of developing cognitive decline and a 36 per cent lower risk of developing dementia than those who did not.

Overall, physical exercise was found to be the most effective way to ward off cognitive decline in healthy older people and reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s. Studies suggest that exercise three to five times a week for between 30 minutes and an hour is beneficial.

However, the evidence review also showed that a healthy diet, moderate alcohol intake and not smoking play a role.

According to the latest estimates, there are 850,000 people in the UK living with dementia. It will affect one in three people over the age of 65.

Caroline Abrahams, charity director of Age UK, said: “While there’s still no cure or way to reverse dementia, this evidence shows that there are simple and effective ways to reduce our risk of developing it to begin with.

“What’s more, the changes that we need to make to keep our brains healthy are already proven to be good for the heart and overall health, so it’s common sense for us all to try to build them into our lives. The sooner we start, the better our chance of having a healthy later life.”

Why does Denmark think it can lay claim to the north pole?


There’s a battle looming for control of the north pole, with the US, Russia, Canada and Norway all thinking they have a right to it. They are chasing potential oil and gas, but could distant Denmark have a reason that’s closer to home?

Denmark’s claim on the north pole is based on its colony Greenland. Photograph: Alamy/Guardian montage

How do you carve up a big block of ice? Argumentatively, seems to be the answer. Denmark is the latest country to lay claim to the north pole, jostling with the US, Canada, Russia and Norway for a huge chunk of the Arctic Ocean.

What was once dismissed as a frozen wasteland is now a lucrative prize: the US Geological Survey estimates there is about 22% of the world’s undiscovered but recoverable oil and natural gas in the Arctic. Global warming could also open up previously inaccessible shipping routes.

A swath of the Arctic including the north pole currently lies beyond every nation’s 200 nautical-mile limit, which, under the UN Convention on the Laws of the Sea, can form a coastal country’s “exclusive economic zone”. So nations are making claims to the UN to extend their territories, although Russia infuriated its rivals in 2007 by placing a rust-proof titanium flag on the ocean floor beneath the Arctic.

Denmark’s bid for 895,000 sq km of the Arctic Ocean sounds particularly audacious given that this is 20 times the size of Denmark (or 43 times the size of Wales – the country, not the ocean-loving mammal) and the country lies on the same latitude as Britain – more than 2,000 miles from the north pole.

But Denmark’s interest is derived from its colony, Greenland, and Danish geologists say Greenland’s continental shelf naturally continues to form the Lomonosov Ridge, an underwater mountain range which traverses the pole.

According to Jon Rahbek-Clemmensen, assistant professor at the University of Southern Denmark, the economic dimension of this dispute is overstated because this part of the vast Arctic “probably has no resources whatsoever”. Instead, he says, the Danish move is to shore up its popularity in independence-seeking Greenland, where the claim is “very, very popular”.

“All geological estimates indicate that this particular area has neither oil nor gas – it’s just about lines on a map,” he says. “For the Greenlanders, it’s more about a feeling of nationhood, and being part of the Arctic. It’s the same for Russia – it’s symbolism.”

Thorkild Kjærgaard, head of history and culture at the University of Greenland, agrees that the claim is designed to show the benefits of the union with Denmark: Greenland could never make such a claim on its own.

However, Denmark’s foreign ministry admits its claim overlaps with those made by Norway, Canada and Russia, and Kjærgaard cannot imagine a Danish flag rising over the north pole. “It is most unlikely Russia will accept it. Nobody expects it to turn out like that, but Copenhagen wants to demonstrate that they support any Greenlandic claim.”

Santa and his reindeer won’t need to apply for Danish or Russian passports any time soon: a UN committee is not expected to pronounce on the scientific validity of rival claims for 10 years. After that, competing nations must reach bilateral agreements over how to carve up the North Pole.

Methane gas ‘belches’ detected on Mars


Nasa’s Curiosity rover has detected methane on Mars – a gas that could hint at past or present life on the planet.

The robot sees very low-level amounts constantly in the background, but it also has monitored a number of short-lived spikes that are 10 times higher.

Methane on the Red Planet is intriguing because here on Earth, 95% of the gas comes from microbial organisms.

Researchers have hung on to the hope that the molecule’s signature at Mars might also indicate a life presence.

The Curiosity team cannot identify the source of its methane, but the leading candidate is underground stores that are periodically disturbed.

Curiosity scientist Sushil Atreya said it was possible that so-called clathrates were involved.

“These are molecular cages of water-ice in which methane gas is trapped. From time to time, these could be destabilised, perhaps by some mechanical or thermal stress, and the methane gas would be released to find its way up through cracks or fissures in the rock to enter the atmosphere,” the University of Michigan professor told BBC News.

He was reporting the discovery here at the American Geophysical Union Fall Meeting.

The question remains, of course, of how the methane (CH4) got into the clathrate stores in the first place.

It could have come from Martian bugs; it could also have come from a natural process, such as serpentinisation, which sees methane produced when water interacts with certain rock types.

At the moment, it is all speculation. But at least Curiosity has now made the detection.

Enriched samples

It was concerning that for many months the robot could not see a gas that was being observed by orbiting spacecraft at Mars and by telescopes at Earth.

People were beginning to wonder if the other sightings were reliable.

Curiosity is located in a deep bowl on Mars’ equator known as Gale Crater.

It has been sucking in Martian air and scanning its components since shortly after landing in August 2012.

For gases that have very low concentrations in the atmosphere, the robot can employ a special technique in which it expels the most abundant molecule – carbon dioxide – before analysing the sample.

This has the effect of enriching and amplifying any residual chemistry.

And in doing this for methane, Curiosity finds that there is a persistent signature of about 0.7 parts per billion by volume (ppbv).

“The background figure suggests there are about 5,000 tonnes of methane in the atmosphere,” said Dr Chris Webster, from Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, who led the investigation.

“You can compare that with Earth where there are about 500 million tonnes. The concentration here at Earth is about 1,800 ppbv.”

Life’s preference

The spikes in methane that Curiosity saw occurred on four occasions during the course of a two-month period.

They varied between about 7 and 9 parts per billion by volume.

It is likely, the team says, that the gas is being released relatively nearby, either within the crater or just outside.

Curiosity’s weather station suggests it is blowing in from the north, from the direction of the crater rim.

One way to investigate whether the methane on Mars has a biological or a geological origin would be to study the types, or isotopes, of carbon atom in the gas.

On Earth, life favours a lighter version of the element (carbon-12), over a heavier one (carbon-13).

A high C-12 to C-13 ratio in ancient Earth rocks has been interpreted as evidence that biological activity existed on our world as much as four billion years ago.

If scientists could find similar evidence on Mars, it would be startling. But, sadly, the volumes of methane detected by Curiosity are simply too small to run this kind of experiment.

“If we had enriched our sample during one of the peaks, we might have had a shot at looking at these isotopes,” explained Dr Paul Mahaffy, the lead investigator on Curiosity’s Surface Analysis at Mars (SAM) instrument, which did the measurements.

“I think there is still some hope. If the methane comes back, and we can enrich it, we’ll certainly be trying.”

Long quest

The other big Curiosity discovery announced here in San Francisco is that the rover has also confirmed the detection of organic (carbon-rich) compounds in the rock samples it has been drilling.

It is the first definitive detection of organics in surface materials at the Red Planet.

The SAM instrument saw evidence for chlorobenzine in the powered rock it pulled up from a mudstone slab dubbed Cumberland.

Chloromethane is a carbon ring with five hydrogen atoms and one chlorine atom attached.

The team cannot be sure if the chemical was specifically present in Cumberland or synthesised during the heating of analysis. But even if the latter is the case, the scientists seem confident the molecule would at the very least have been derived from larger carbon structures that were in place.

Once again, scientists are interested in seeing such organics because life as we know it can only exist if it has the capacity to trade in carbon molecules.

If they are not present then neither will there be any biology. However, just as with the methane detection, this does not of itself automatically point to life on Mars, now or in the past, because there are plenty of abiotic processes that will produce complex carbon structures as well.

“It’s a big day for us – it’s a kind of crowning moment of 10 years of hard work – where we report there is methane in the atmosphere and there are also organic molecules in abundance in the sub-surface,” commented Curiosity project scientist Prof John Grotzinger.


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