Gordon Campbell on the Lancet’s stance against the Olympic Games, and on the US culture battles over abortion

71f21f236d2dcbbff05bYesterday – barely a month before the opening ceremony – the Lancet medical journal has called for a global conversation on whether the Olympics should go ahead. But who is able to take part in that conversation? Not the hosts, evidently. In poll after poll, a huge majority of the Japanese people have made it clear they do not want to host the Games, because of the unnecessary health risk that the Games pose to Tokyo, and to the nation as a whole. Regardless, the International Olympic Committee- the only body with the power to call off the Games – has continued to put the money tied up in its global media contracts ahead of (a) the safety of the athletes (b) the safety of the Japanese people, and (c) the potential for the Games to become a super-spreader event, after the athletes have returned home.

The IOC are not the only culprits here. You would think that holding a global sporting event in the midst of a pandemic would have aroused the World Health Organisation to express an opinion on the wisdom of proceeding. Not so. As the Lancet says, “The World Health Organisation refuses to be drawn on whether [the Games] should go ahead.” Similarly. “the European Centre for Disease Prevention has told the Lancet it has not specifically performed, or even discussed, a risk evaluation for the Olympics.” Clearly, when money talks, that tends to put an end to the conversation.

Our Health Ministry has also declined to join the global conversation being called for by the Lancet. In May, Otago University epidemiologist Michael Baker argued that the decision to proceed was a moral one, and he called on the government to intervene. Instead, the government has chosen to limit its role to one of helping make the travel involved as safe as possible, and has left the core decision to proceed to the local branch of the IOC, which (predictably) has downplayed the risks involved:

Covid response minister Chris Hipkins says New Zealand’s Olympic Committee (NZOC) had made its decision to send New Zealand athletes, and the Government had supported them to make their travel as safe as possible, while the New Zealand Olympic Committee (NZOC) says Tokyo’s outbreaks are “significantly less severe” than Europe and the Americas.”

Yes, the NZOC is relying on the “Japan not as bad as Brazil, Tokyo not as bad as Delhi” level of moral argument. (Not many dead people likely. Let the Games begin!) Overall, it is hard to imagine a more blatant example of the Olympic spirit being prostituted on the bed of commerce. Soon, the media will be swinging into the usual rounds of coverage of Olympic competition and medal glory. Yes, it must be great to win Olympic medals. On this occasion though, it seems likely that those medals will have blood on them.

Footnote: True to recent form, the Japanese government has ignored its own health advice to hold the Games in stadiums without spectators. Instead, it will impose a 10,000 crowd maximum, will discourage shouting and cheering, and will require mask wearing at all times.

The latest move contradicts recommendations by the country’s top medical adviser, Dr Shigeru Omi, who said last week the safest way to hold the Olympics would be without fans.

Given the increasing spread of the Delta variant, this decision on crowd numbers is – once again – a case of putting the needs of commerce and television spectacle (empty stadiums can look depressing) ahead of public safety.

Undermining the vote
Democracy, shamocracy. In the US and Israel in recent months, leaders have refused to accept their defeat at the polls. By definition, the public must have got it wrong. To help ensure the American public never mistakenly votes a Republican president out of office ever again, Republican state governments from Texas to Georgia have been systematically passing laws that will restrict the ability of poor, black and Hispanic communities to vote.

Like Covid, the attacks on democracy seem to be a global trend. In Ethiopia this week, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and President Ably Ahmed has boosted his chances of winning the national election by not holding a vote at all in the Tigray region (where his Army has been waging a destructive, famine-blighted war for several months) or in two other regions where there is unrest. In the remainder of the country, the international media are expecting Ably Ahmed to win a ringing endorsement of his strongarm actions. In September, a smaller, second round of voting will occur in some of the constituencies not able/not allowed to hold a vote this week.

In Peru, democracy is in similar peril. A full 100% of the votes in the country’s presidential election had been counted a week ago, but the electoral authorities are still declining to officially announce the winner – despite the fact that left wing candidate Pedro Castillo won the most votes. International observers have reported no signs of election fraud. Yet Keiko Fujimori, the candidate supported by the business and political elites, has refused to concede defeat. She has reportedly hired teams of high-powered lawyers to try and disallow many of the votes cast in the poor, Andean regions of the country.

It gets worse. In recent days, Fujimori has been using racist language to decry the illiterate Quechua-speaking Andean “peasants” who voted for her opponent. Her supporters have also called on the armed forces to intervene, and install her in power. Basically, a coup is being launched by Peru’s elites against Castillo, even before he takes office. Keiko Fujimori’s supporters have also been urging her to resume the forced sterilisation of the rural poor that was initiated by her father Alberto, during the 1990s. The official health figures in Peru show that 270,000 women and 22,000 men were sterilised during Alberto Fujimori’s term as President, between 1990 and 2000. The vast majority of the rural victims lacked the Spanish language skills required to give informed consent on the official forms. Now 82, Alberto Fujimori is currently serving a 25 year jail term for corruption and human rights abuses. Freeing him from prison is one of his daughter’s political priorities.

Abortion, and Biden
There are other, slightly more subtle ways of poisoning the well of democracy. US President Joseph Biden is a Roman Catholic, and is also the most regular church-going US President since Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Regardless, the US Catholic Bishops Conference passed a remit a few days ago calling for the drawing up of a statement on the Eucharist intended to eventually deny Biden access to Communion, because of his support for abortion rights.

The Roman Catholic bishops of the United States, flouting a warning from the Vatican, have overwhelmingly voted to draft guidance on the sacrament of the Eucharist, advancing a push by conservative bishops to deny President Biden communion because of his support of abortion rights…The action is the latest sign of how the nation’s bitter political divisions are shaping religious life….[This] move to target a president, who regularly attends Mass and has spent a lifetime steeped in Christian rituals and practices, is striking coming from leaders of the president’s own faith, particularly after many conservative Catholics turned a blind eye to the sexual improprieties of former President Donald J. Trump because they supported his political agenda

As Vox News noted a few days ago, the US bishops are also picking and choosing among the Church’s moral teachings in order to advance a political programme that’s out of step with the emphasis of current Vatican teaching:

[The] vote… reflects an internal divide among US church leadership over how involved the religious institution should be in political life. If the conference does produce a statement opposing sacraments for pro-choice politicians, it would be a sharp departure from past non-responses to politicians who have gone against church teachings on other issues, such as the death penalty. And it would diverge from the teachings of Pope Francis, head. of the Catholic Church, who has called for the church
to be a “home for all,” rather than overly focusing on a handful of social issues.

In a sense, the gambit by the US Bishops reflects the political divide that exists among their dwindling flock of parishioners. Like Pope Francis, Biden appears to be less concerned with the personal moralities of gender identity and reproductive choice than with the collective moralities of social inequality and climate change. (In that sense, both men have more in common with liberation theology than they do with the deeply conservative era of John Paul II.) Thankfully, access to the Eucharist won’t be an immediate problem for Biden. After it is drafted, the Bishops’ statement must be approved by the same group by a two thirds margin, and – in all probability – the Vatican would need to have approved the statement’s doctrinal soundness beforehand. Room for delay, and for compromise.

Usefully for right wing political strategists though, the issue may still be able to be re-packaged as a conscience decision for Catholic voters, before the midterm elections next year. Point achieved, if the conservative right can query Biden’s moral authority by alleging that he is out of step with the Church’s traditional teachings on the polarising /mobilising issue of abortion.

Footnote: As Vox News noted, US politicians who support the death penalty have never been similarly threatened by the US Bishops for flouting the Church’s clear opposition to executions. This opposition was re-stated by Pope Francis in an encyclical called Fratelli Tutti last October, in which Francis formally closed all of the loopholes, and ruled out any exceptions to the moral ban on the death penalty. Among the prominent US Catholics that this ban should place in a position of ethical conflict would be Texas governor Greg Abbott and conservative Supreme Court justices John Roberts, Samuel Alito, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett. Unfortunately… of the names on that list, only Abbott can be held accountable by the voters.

Footnote: Abortion is on track to become central to the political culture wars in the US, given that the Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case during this term that could well overturn the Roe v Wade decision that – in 1973 – established the legal right of US women to abortion. True, you could well think that Roe v Wade isn’t offering much of a guarantee anymore, anyway – given how many restrictions that anti-abortion state legislatures have put on abortion facilities and (b) given the recent passage by several states of so called “fetal heartbeat” laws:

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott on Wednesday signed a bill that would ban abortions as soon as a fetal heartbeat can be detected. That’s as early as six weeks’ gestation, before many people know they are pregnant, making the bill a de facto ban on nearly all abortions. The law contains an exception for medical emergencies, but no exceptions for cases of rape or incest.

To date, eight states have passed ‘heartbeat’ laws. (These restrict abortions to only two weeks after a period has been missed.) None of those laws have yet come into effect though, because…they’ve faced court challenges because they run so directly counter to Roe v. Wade. Not perhaps, for much longer. Besides, as the Texas Tribune recently reported, the Texas law also contains a cunning formula for neutralising the protections contained in Roe v Wade.

Instead of having the government enforce the law, the [Texas law] turns the reins over to private citizens — who are newly empowered to sue abortion providers or anyone who helps someone get an abortion after a fetal heartbeat has been detected. The person would not have to be connected to someone who had an abortion or to a provider to sue. Proponents of the new law hope to get around the legal challenges that have tied up abortion restrictions in the courts. While abortion providers typically sue the state to stop a restrictive abortion law from taking effect, there’s no state official enforcing Senate Bill 8 — so there’s no one to sue, the bill’s proponents say.

Regardless, anti-abortion activists are looking to the Supreme Court and its 6-3 conservative majority to overturn Roe v Wade anyway. That opportunity will arise when the Court rules later this year on a Mississippi state law banning all abortions after 15 weeks.

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