Religion, contraception, and health insurance

In the US, there are two ways most of us get health insurance: through Medicaid (53 million enrollees) or Medicare (nearly 45 million), or through an employer (148 million).

That’s 44% of us relying on health insurance through our jobs, and the federal government has regulated this area for a long time, including mandating the inclusion of certain types of care. Nixon signed the Health Maintenance Organization Law of 1973, designed to encourage the formation of HMOs to provide medical care and contain costs. HMOs were required to deliver “basic health services” including mental health (maximum of 20 visits), medical treatment and referral for alcohol and drug abuse or addiction, home health services, and preventive services (vision care and preventive dental care for children, and family planning services). Other providers of health care for employees

Another 16% of the population receives health care through Medicaid, which is paid for jointly by the federal government and each state. States design their plans but must obey federal rules, which since 1972 have required that states include “family planning and supplies furnished (directly or under arrangements with others) to individuals of child-bearing age (including minors who can be considered to be sexually active)” to Medicaid eligible individuals. Though Medicaid coverage of prescription drugs is generally an option for states, contraceptives are specifically included under the mandate and therefore are required for all state programs. [This information is from a joint report by the Kaiser Foundation and the Guttmacher Institute; at the end of the post there appears an excerpt which summarizes why family planning was mandated.]

So, there is nothing new about the federal government requiring health care organizations such as HMOs to offer contraception, and every person or business paying state or federal taxes is supporting contraception dispensed by Medicaid.

What’s new is the government requiring that employers offer health care, and that the health care include contraception. Previously, we must suppose, religious organizations opposed to contraception have chosen health care plans that don’t cover it. Now, for good public health reasons (see the report excerpt at the end), that loophole is being closed.

Obama’s response to criticism of this requirement—criticism marked by hyperbole, e.g. calling it a “war on religion”, and a violation of freedom of religion—has been to say that the services must be offered, but no religious organization has to pay for contraceptive services: the insurance company must absorb the cost itself. Catholic bishops still object, and say they will take the issue to court, partly because some religious organizations are self-insured; no insurance company is involved. But as we have seen, if the churches are paying any taxes (sales tax, property tax on buildings they own and rent out, etc.) they’re already paying for Medicaid’s family planning, from counselling to IUDs and pills. If their court case succeeds, will they then file to be exempted from taxes that support Medicaid?

If Obama’s accommodation is the right solution, then surely we should exempt the Christian Science church from paying for health care insurance at all! And following this precedent, the rest of us should demand the same sort of line item veto for our income tax so we can opt out of paying for this or that war, for the agencies enforcing laws about civil rights and equal employment, for the next bank bailout, for federal aid to schools that teach sex education or evolution, for whatever we don’t personally like or need. The Tea Partyers will love this!

Coffee dyed paper

Below is the excerpt from the Kaiser Foundation/Guttmacher Institute report, Medicaid’s Role in Family Planning (2007).

Medicaid  family planning, excerpt from Guttmacher report at

Not exactly a New Year’s resolution, but…

This is about the time when people start to revel or reveal, with regard to how they’re doing with their New Year’s resolutions. I haven’t made any for years but I did take on something for 2011 that is turning out to be rather similar.

Back in November I came across the concept of “365” groups, on flickr. Members commit to taking photos every single day, and posting one of them to the group, from Jan. 1 to Dec. 31. At the end of the year one has 365 photos, each taken on a different day of the year—it’s not permitted to take and post 2 pictures today to make up for none yesterday. On impulse I signed up for one of the groups; when late December rolled around I questioned, did I really need one more thing to do, but decided to stick with it and see what happened. I was pleased to see that my group, 365: the 2011 edition, had only 805 members, as compared to one 365 group with over 20,000. It’s conceivable I’ll get a look at some of the photos of each member in my group before we reach Day 365.

My impulsive choice has had significant results. I always carried my camera, a Canon PowerShot, with me in my bag or coat pocket wherever I went but most of the time it just went along for the ride. In case of something dramatic I was ready, but nearly all of my subjects were predictable: our dogs, forest, flowers, sky. Now the camera is increasingly in my hand either because I’m on the lookout for a good subject or because I’m using it. I’m more observant, looking up and around, and looking at things with conscious attention to light, composition, color, pattern.

Looking upward in a country store that sells everything, which I’ve gone into regularly for 15 years, I saw a high-up display of taxidermy specimens I had never noticed before. Never noticed before?

BlackBird taxidermy display 1.jpg

How could I have missed it? There’s a black bear behind the leaping bobcat, and on the other side of the display a dozen trophy heads including a moose. Actually I had noticed the moose head, behind a daunting display of rifles, but that’s all I’d been aware of until now. Obviously, I have been in the thrall of fixation on my immediate purpose and suffering tunnel vision as a result.

BlackBird taxidermy display, bobcat leaps for grouse.jpg

I think the bird is a Chukar Partridge (Alectoris chukar, an Asian species introduced in Oregon). Bobcat and lynx are pretty similar, but the cat making this one-footed leap for its dinner lacks the lynx’s black ear-tufts and furry snowshoe feet so I’ll go for the smaller and more common bobcat, Lynx rufus or Felis rufus.

My strengths as a photographer are patience and an attunement to pattern and composition. The latter is getting good exercise as I apply it more widely, beyond rocks and bark and such.

bottles at liquor store.jpg

plastic glasses.jpg

Taking photos of new subjects, and doing it every day, means lots more for me to look over and critique. What was I trying to do, how did it work, how could it work better, should my purpose have been different for this subject—these are some questions I’m asking every day now as I look at my day’s work. And then I look through other peoples’ photos with enjoyment and an eye to learning from them. I bookmark some individuals’ photostreams because of their skills, or because I find their places and subjects interesting.

Perhaps I can use the 365 project to help me conquer my shyness about asking people if I may include them in my photos. That would certainly open up a new world photographically, but it will not be easy. I noticed a post on the 365 forum by someone who has had a special business-type card made up for this purpose: it bears his name, email address, and flickr link, and he gives it to people as part of asking permission to photograph them. His 365 photos are all portraits—he’s working on lighting and composition as well as becoming more extroverted. Maybe I should try the card idea myself; props can be good, and this one is considerate and makes sense.

What I’ve learned about building a new skill or habit (of which New Year’s resolutions are a particular case) would not surprise any behaviorist:

Commit to a specific action, every day

Choose an action that’s not too difficult

Keep a record and/or tell others about your commitment

Whether it’s putting stars on a calendar for an exercise program, or posting a photo for each day, there’s a lot of power in getting the new habit out of the realm of intellect and intention and into a visible form. I had only about a dozen photos on flickr, and now I’ve added a 365 set that has all my “photos of the day” in it. It’s satisfying to see the set grow, and to notice how my repertoire is expanding. The group’s explicit purpose is improvement of one’s skills rather than posting masterpieces. Inclusive rather than exclusive.

I’m learning to pay more attention—and a different kind of attention—to what’s around me, and try new things with the camera and my eye; I’m into a daily discipline; and maybe I’ll even use the photo project as a means of building confidence about talking to others. Not bad for what I thought was an impulsive commitment!

Freeze my head (but not yet)

After reading the latest issue of New Scientist, I think I may leave instructions to freeze my head when I die. It’s not because of any terrific new cryogenics method revealed by the magazine, but because of their series of short articles on extremophile organisms. You know, the thermophiles that can survive boiling temperatures (one microbe lived through a spell of 130° C (266° F), like the North American Wood Frog (Rana sylvatica), Painted Turtle (Chrysemys picta) hatchlings, and Woolly Bear caterpillars (Pyrrharctia isabella, which turn into the Isabella Tiger Moth) that can be frozen solid or nearly so and come to life again. Then there are the ones that can survive being dried out by “replac[ing] water molecules [in and around the cell] with sugar, turning their cytoplasm into a solid called sugar glass”. (New Scientist, 13 Nov 2010, p. 41). These are mostly small invertebrates. One in particular takes the survival prize: the tardigrade or water bear.

microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear,  phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs.jpg

Microphotograph of tardigrade or water bear, in the phylum Tardigrada, part of the superphylum Ecdysozoa. They are microscopic, water-dwelling, segmented animals with eight legs. Unlike lots of microscopic animals, they do not seem to live by choice on or in humans, so you can study the photo without getting itchy. Photo source.

Because it is directly related to why I might want to freeze my head, let me quote from Wikipedia’s article on the tardigrade’s survival feats:

More than 1,000 species of tardigrades have been described. Tardigrades occur over the entire world, from the high Himalayas (above 6,000 metres (20,000 ft), to the deep sea (below 4,000 m) and from the polar regions to the equator.

The most convenient place to find tardigrades is on lichens and mosses. Other environments are dunes, beaches, soil, and marine or freshwater sediments, where they may occur quite frequently (up to 25,000 animals per litre). Tardigrades often can be found by soaking a piece of moss in spring water.

Tardigrades are able to survive in extreme environments that would kill almost any other animal. Some can survive temperatures of −273 °C (−459.400 °F), close to absolute zero, temperatures as high as 151 °C (304 °F), 1,000 times more radiation than other animals, and almost a decade without water. In September 2007, tardigrades were taken into low Earth orbit on the FOTON-M3 mission and for 10 days were exposed to the vacuum of space. After they were returned to Earth, it was discovered that many of them survived and laid eggs that hatched normally.

Below, a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. Photo source.

a tardigrade in cryptobiosis (dried-out state) waiting for wetter conditions. The condition is called cryptobiosis.jpg

What the tardigrade means to me

The greater likelihood of…Life on Mars!

Areologists have found evidence to support the presence of surface water on Mars in earlier times (1, 2). On Earth, the one condition life seems to require is water in the environment. It can adapt to other conditions of astonishing harshness, as the extremophiles show. Therefore, if life developed upon Mars during the time of surface water, it is quite possible it has adapted to the new conditions.

One place to look for water and surviving life forms would be in the deep chasms of Mars, including Valles Marineris which is 1,860 miles long and in places reaches five miles in depth (five times the depth of the Grand Canyon). None of our probes has landed near chasms because we haven’t designed ways to explore them robotically. This is a job for human beings, and I am extremely disappointed that it hasn’t been done yet.

When I watched Neil Armstrong step onto the moon in 1969, I felt confident that the US and other nations would build on this accomplishment in what seemed a logical progression: space station, lunar base, a manned mission to Mars. I would not have believed that, 40 years after reaching the moon, only one of these elements would be up and running. That one, the International Space Station is a testament to the dedication of a few, but it’s not the robust establishment I expected; it seems to be on a precarious footing in mechanical reliability, and in international support. The other two are as far from reality as they were in 1969—no, farther, because the momentum of the 1960s has drained away, and the world faces more serious problems than it did then. What was justifiably affordable then, may not be now.

I don’t view space exploration as a luxury, or as an activity that merely satisfies our curiosity. It has much more to offer the species than that. We cannot say what we would have learned, what technologies we would have developed, had we followed the path I expected. Perhaps we would even have reached a slightly greater degree of wisdom about ourselves and or treatment of the planet, or maybe not.

But I do know how badly I want to see some questions answered, including “What life is there on Mars?”

And if looks as if, even if I eat my vegetables and exercise diligently, I may not live long enough in the normal course of events to find this out. So, freezing my head may be the only possibility. How can I let a bunch of tardigrades hear the news about Martian life, and not hear it myself?


1 Jakosky, Bruce M. et al. Mars’ volatile and climate history. Nature 412, 237-244 (12 July 2001).

2 Bowen, TA and Hynek, BM. Mars’ climate history as inferred from valley networks on volcanoes. Lunar and Planetary Science XXXIX (2008).

Etymological Notes

Rana sylvatica
rana, from Latin rana (frog); sylvatica from Latin sylvaticus (growing in the woods, wild)

Chrysemys picta
chrysemys, from Greek chrysos (gold) and emys (freshwater tortoise”)

Pyrrharctia isabella
Pyrrharctia, from Greek pyr– (fire) and arktos (bear—the animal, also used to refer to the north; here probably alluding to the hairy caterpillar, the “wooly bear”)
isabella, a word used to denote various vague colors: greyish-yellow, sand color, pale fawn, pale cream-brown or parchment; etymology uncertain but see here.

Tardigrada, from Latin tardigradus (slowly stepping), from tardus (slow) and gradior (step, walk)

Ecdysozoa, from Greek ekdusis (a stripping off) and zoon (a living being, animal; plural zoa)

Bonus for sticking with me to the end…

There’s one caterpillar just about everybody can identify, if only because of its supposed ability to predict the severity of the winter:

Woolly bear caterpillar, which becomes Pyrrharctia_isabella, the Isabella Moth.jpg

The Woolly Bear, of course, and the narrow band of brown on this one indicates a very tough winter to come. Photo by Rhys Alton from flickr.

But who among us knows what the Woolly Bear looks like when he or she grows up? Like this,

Pyrrharctia_isabella, Isabella Tiger Moth, which develops from the Woolly Bear caterpillar.jpg

the Isabella Tiger Moth (Pyrrharctia isabella), found in much of North America and Central America. The caterpillar overwinters, hence the ability to withstand freezing temperatures. The Woolly Bear has another distinction: the first insect known to self-medicate. It eats leaves from ragworts, groundsels and other plants that are rich in alkaloids, and these help rid it of parasites; infected caterpillars eat more of such leaves than uninfected ones. Yes, everything it seems has parasites; “Great fleas have little fleas upon their backs to bite ‘em, And little fleas have lesser fleas, and so ad infinitum”. And I, driven by the desire to know things, doubtless will need to know something else once my thawed-out brain has assimilated knowledge of our first manned mission to Mars.

A Pacific Tree Frog showing reddish temporary colors

Another post showed a Pacific Tree Frog (Pseudacris regilla) that had changed color, in 6 hours or so, from chocolate brown to tan. Today, in the same location—on our porch between the wall and a cardboard sixpack beer carrier—we found another (or maybe the same, who knows?) Pacific Tree Frog with distinct reddish color markings.

Frog, red markings IMG_7326.jpg

Here he is, shy fellow, looking out at me.

Frog, looking, red markings IMG_7326.jpg

This is the most common frog in our area, found from British Columbia to Northern California, and up to 11,000 feet in elevation. And they’re noted for color changing, “ranging from unicolor to mottled with greens, tans, reds, grays, browns, or blacks. They have the ability to change from light to dark”.

They’re in the “chorus frog” group.

During breeding season, males will call to attract females. A number of calling males is known as a chorus. A dominant male, or chorus master, leads off the calling which is then followed by subordinate males. If an intruding male comes instead, the Pacific Treefrog changes its usual two-part “ribbet” to a one-part encounter call. An observer trying to locate the Pacific Treefrog can mimic their calls and take over as chorus master, enticing the other frogs to begin calling as well. If this is done, be prepared to take on the responsibilities that come with being the chorus master!

I suppose they are the frog we hear so much in the spring, though I haven’t gone out to check; approaching calling frogs seems to make them be quiet, a very sensible move, so I haven’t pursued the matter. Great sound!

And their color changing is really intriguing.

There’s a rare blue morph,

Pacific Tree Frog, blue morph.jpg


and the more usual brown and green appearances,

Pacific Tree Frog, Wikimedia.jpg


Pacific Tree Frog, green.jpg

Source for both, Wikimedia Commons.

But the color-changing, apparently back and forth among all the colors except blue, is really intriguing. Wikipedia says, “Previously, it was thought that there were two different fixed colors that an adult tree frog could be. Now it has been found that some of them are able to change between the two.” The closer we look, the more complex things become. Wonderful!

No snoring, no lying

A new blog: challenging, like a white sheet of paper. Does the world need another blog? No. But blogs rise out of people’s need to say their piece––whether by a subject-oriented blog on science or politics, or a more personal, less link-laden, blog.

This one will be some of each.There are subjects I have personal experience with, for which I’ve searched in vain online for the information I needed, and I’d like to address those.
For example, methadone and chronic pain: the good, the bad, and the withdrawal.
Or the current antipathy of many Americans toward the entire idea of taxation; my county’s entire library system closed for 7 months in 2007 for lack of money, and 2 modest tax levies to re-open the libraries failed during that period. Are we really too poor to support libraries?

The dog on the masthead is our English Mastiff Bart, an old guy of ten. I’m afraid he does snore (a comforting sound, actually) but he never lies. Here’s another picture of him and one of Brook our Rhodesian Ridgeback.


Brook panting.jpg