Letter to the Editor of THE NEW YORK TIMES

After reading Delaware Governor Jack A. Markell’s Op-Ed article in The New York Times on April 12th, I felt compelled to write a letter to the editor, which appears in the newspaper today, April 19th.

Here is the text of my letter:

To the Editor:

Re “Pregnancy and Prosperity,” by Jack A. Markell (Op-Ed, April 12):

Thanks to Governor Markell of Delaware for addressing how negative outcomes arise from unintended pregnancies and poor access to effective contraception. But this information is not new; our government has simply failed to listen to the needs of women.

For thousands of years, women (and men, too) have tried to control the size of their families and the spacing of their children. Oral tribal histories and ancient papyri show that reproductive control is a human need.

The United Nations has declared that reproductive rights are human rights. Yet despite this history and the high rate of unintended pregnancies and maternal mortality, the federal and state governments have neglected to provide adequate funding for good reproductive health care and sex education. Without these safeguards, women cannot chart the course of their lives.

Now, would Governor Markell kindly pass this information on to the other 49 governors and their state legislators?



The writer is the author of “Reproductive Rights: Who Decides?”



Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? officially launched into the hands of over 90 people in the elegant library at the Yale Club of New York City on April 7th.  What a special evening hosted by my husband, Andy Wittenstein!  Given the current campaign for president and the media attention showered on women’s reproductive freedom, the room buzzed about the latest restrictions on reproductive rights.

My talk focused on how history is a lens for analyzing the contemporary political, economic and social struggles for reproductive rights today.  These rights have swung back and forth throughout the centuries:  with every two steps forward, we witness a step back.  So, for example, a new openness and curiosity about reproductive control in the mid-1800s was squashed by the Comstock Act (1873), which banned the sale and advertising of materials used for contraception and abortion.  In some states, possession of these items and even talking about them was illegal.  Birth control advocates like Margaret Sanger and Mary Ware Dennett fought to overturn these laws in the 1900s.  But it was not until 1965 that the US Supreme Court in Griswold v. Connecticut ruled that married couples could use contraceptives in the privacy of their relationship without government interference.  Seven years passed before these rights were extended to unmarried couples in Eisenstadt v. Baird.

After the landmark decision in Roe v. Wade (1973), where the US Supreme Court ruled that women had a constitutional right to an abortion, the pendulum began to swing back again.  By the late 1970s, violence erupted at reproductive health clinics across the nation and clinic entrances were blocked.  Several US Supreme Court cases restricted the abortion rights guaranteed under Roe.  And in the last several years, states have passed hundreds of abortion laws restricting access and forcing clinic closures.

Throughout history men and women have always found ways to control reproduction.  Reproductive control is a human need, or as the United Nations has declared, a Human Right.  As I stressed in my talk, let’s not let the pendulum swing back yet again.

Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights in New York City, and an expert I consulted for my book, also spoke at the launch party.  Toti talked about the  Texas abortion case that she argued before the US Supreme Court in March, Whole Women’s Health v. Cole, and how the flurry of abortion restrictions have impacted women’s ability to exercise their legal rights.  But as Toti pointed out, abortion is not the only reproductive right challenged.  In the US Supreme Court case Zubik v. Burwell, a religious group is seeking to restrict women’s rights to contraception coverage under the Affordable Care Act.

The evening ended with more buzz, lots of good food and drink, and promises by many to spread the word about reproductive rights, particularly to young people, the next generation of parents and leaders.

V at podium book party 4:7:16

With Stephanie Toti 4:7:16

* Stephanie Toti, senior counsel at the Center for Reproductive Rights in NYC (left) and I at the book launch party.


REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS Discussion Questions

I hope the attached Discussion Questions for Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? helps educators and students discuss and analyze the history of reproductive rights and the critical issues of legal access to contraception, abortion and reproductive healthcare in the US and worldwide.

Discussion Questions


From February 15th – 26th teachers, librarians and children’s book writers will be interviewing me and reviewing Reproductive Rights: Who Decides? on their blogs.  Join me for the tour stops!

Mon, Feb 15
Tues, Feb 16
The Book Monsters
Wed, Feb 17
Library Fanatic
Thurs, Feb 18
Kid Lit Frenzy
Fri, Feb 19
The Nonfiction Detectives
Sat, Feb 20
Ms. Yingling Reads
Mon, Feb 22
The Launch Pad
Tues, Feb 23
Through the Tollbooth
Wed, Feb 24
Unleashing Readers
Thurs, Feb 25
The Pirate Tree
Fri, Feb 26
Teach Mentor Texts
Please feel free to leave a comment along the way.







Altering the Human Genome

For years scientists and ethicists have worried about the ramifications of altering the human genome in ways that can be inherited from generation to generation.  Although many recognize the benefits of switching DNA for disease prevention and cures, the fear lies in using these techniques for genetic enhancement—altering genetic traits to create “designer babies.” This fear is now real, according to a front page article in today’s New York Times by Nicholas Wade.  Biologists Jennifer A. Doudna from the University of California, Berkeley and Emma-nuelle Chapentier of Umea University in Sweden and have invented a new technique which has this dual capability:  preventing disease and crafting preferable human traits.

When a person opts for self-enhancement, it generally affects that person.  For example, a burn victim might opt for plastic surgery to treat facial scars.  But if parents were able, for example, to change a fetus’ eye color, or create a child who was more intelligent, artistic, or athletic, those changes would affect generations to come.  The idea of “designer babies” brings back chilling memories of the U.S. eugenics movement during the 19th and 20th centuries when about 60,000 people were sterilized, including the mentally ill, poor teenagers, young girls who had been raped, people with epilepsy, and those who were considered feebleminded.  If people can dictate the genetic abilities of their offspring, how far away are we from the Nazi dream of creating a perfect race?  Where should society draw the line?

Dr. Doudna and a group of biologists have called for a global ban on further development of this technique until the science community, medical ethicists, and the public, have aired its implications and determined appropriate uses.  Although scientists are years away from human experimentation and clinical trials, now is the time to set world-wide guidelines and limits.

Geoff Marcy: Planet Hunter Supreme

Yesterday’s New York Times profile of planet hunter Geoff Marcy brought back great memories of my trip to the Keck Observatory in Hawaii during the summer of 2009.  I spent a few days with Geoff learning about planet hunting for my book, Planet Hunter: Geoff Marcy and the Search for Other Earths.  The morning we met, Geoff had stayed awake the entire night before using the Keck telescope.  But he was anything but tired.  He bounded across the room, demonstrating all the computers, pointing out stars in the sky and explaining how to detect a planet.

He was thrilled that I was writing a book for children, and continually dreamed up ways for young people to understand the material.  “A planet’s like a frisky dog being walked by its owner, the star . . . the leash is gravity,” he said.  That analogy has helped so many of the children I encounter in schools to understand the gravitational tug of war between a star and its orbiting planet.

“They are my children,” Geoff said about the planets to Dennis Overbye, the New York Times journalist who wrote yesterday’s profile.  And it’s true.  Geoff’s curiosity and love of astronomy nurtured a passion to discover other worlds like Earth.  Thanks to his determination, we now know of over 1,700 extrasolar planets, new worlds outside our solar system that just might harbor life.

Designer Babies? Genetic Alterations Head Down a Slippery Slope

Should scientists be permitted to genetically alter babies with traits that can be inherited by future generations?  In the past week, the F.D.A. considered the science–not the ethics–behind what is called “mitochondrial manipulation.” Many bioethicists are worried, and think we are sliding down a slippery slope to “designer babies.” What is “mitochrondrial manipulation” and do bioethicists have reason to worry?

Mitochondria are cells that lie outside an egg’s nucleus and help provide the body with energy.  But mutations in the DNA of mitochondria can cause many life-threatening diseases.  By experimenting with rhesus macaque monkeys, researchers at the Oregon Health and Science University think they have figured out a way for women who carry the mutated DNA to deliver a healthy baby.  Researchers propose to remove the healthy genetic material in the nucleus of a woman’s egg or embryo, and inject it into a healthy donor egg or embryo (after first removing the genetic material in the nucleus of the donor).  Once fertilized, the egg, or the embryo, would be implanted in the woman’s womb.

On the Op-Ed page of the New York Times, Marcy Darnovsky, executive director of the Center for Genetics and Society, sounded warning bells.  “Will the child be born healthy, or will the cellular disruptions created by this eggs-as-Lego pieces approach lead to problems later on?  What about subsequent generations?  And how far will we go in our efforts to engineer humans?”

The Oregon researchers have produced five healthy monkeys.  But so far none of the monkeys has reproduced, so researchers don’t yet know what mutations might occur in subsequent generations.  Similarly, we have no idea how mix-matching nuclear DNA and mitochondria DNA in women’s eggs and embryos will affect future generations of human beings.

Until recently, most policy makers have agreed that new genetic technologies should be used to treat medical conditions, so long as the techniques don’t create traits that can be inherited by subsequent generations.  But now, despite the inheritable effect of mitochondrial manipulation, researchers in the U.S. and other countries are anxious to begin clinical trials on humans.

As with all human medical experimentation, the risks to the individual must be weighed against the benefits to science and medicine, and the ends cannot justify the means.  Although in this case, the new technology might cure a serious medical condition, other options are available.  Women today can opt to have genetic testing and screening of eggs, in vitro fertilization with donor eggs, and even adoption.  The procedure itself is risky, as it can cause health issues, not only for the woman carrying the embryo, but also for the donor whose eggs are extracted, as well as the baby.

Are we heading down a slippery slope?  After all, a process like mitochondrial manipulation, which will affect the genomes of future generations, may lead to acceptance of “designer babies.”  As I said in my book For the Good of Mankind? “this notion of ‘designer babies’ brings back chilling memories of eugenics and the Nazi dream of creating a perfect race.” Clearly, this is a topic that needs to be publicly discussed and where laws and regulations will be needed for guidance.

Darnovsky concluded in her Op-Ed article, “Simply being able to do something doesn’t mean we should do it.” I agree.


Planets Galore!

Well-known planet hunter Geoff Marcy and scientists from the University of California, Berkeley ([U.C. Berkeley] and the University of Hawaii, Manoa announced exciting news yesterday.  By computing data from the Kepler Space Mission, they figured out the number of Earth-like planets in the Milky Way orbiting stars like the Sun.  The number?  Tens of billions!

A press release from U.C. Berkeley quoted graduate student Erik Petigura, who was in charge of the team that analyzed the data. “When you look up at the thousands of stars in the night sky, the nearest sun-like star with an Earth-size planet in its habitable zone is probably only 12 light years away and can be seen with the naked eye. That is amazing,” Petigura said.

But the potential number of Earth-like planets orbiting in the Goldilocks Zone of stars where temperatures are “just right” for life, doesn’t mean that all the planets will be habitable.  As Marcy warned, “Some may have thick atmospheres, making it so hot at the surface that DNA-like molecules would not survive. Others may have rocky surfaces that could harbor liquid water suitable for living organisms,” Marcy said. “We don’t know what range of planet types and their environments are suitable for life.”

What does it all mean?  Now that we know that potentially habitable planets are so common, hopefully scientists will be able to detect if the atmospheres around planets orbiting stars closest to our Sun contain the ingredients for life.  Scientists may be closing in on the mystery of alien life!

Bloggers Write About FOR THE GOOD OF MANKIND?

For the next two weeks, several bloggers are writing reviews of For the Good of Mankind? and interviewing me.  Brenda Kahn, blogger for proseandkahn posted today that the book “is one tough but important read,” and “is a must-purchase for high school libraries and, would be appropriate for guided close-reading in the hands of an adept middle school language arts or social studies teacher.”

Follow me on the blog tour and leave a comment!  Here’s the schedule:

blog URL
Mon, Nov 4
Tues, Nov 5
The Prosen People
Thurs, Nov 7
The Nonfiction Detectives
Fri, Nov 8
Growing with Science
Mon, Nov 11
Ms. Yingling Reads
Tues, Nov 12
Through the Wardrobe
Wed, Nov 13
Kid Lit Frenzy
Thurs, Nov 14
Fri, Nov 15
The Fourth Musketeer

Inside Story Fun!

Thank you to the Society of Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators (SCBWI) and to the Bank Street Bookstore for hosting Inside Story on Saturday.  Lots of people came to learn about children’s books and to hear authors talk about the inspirations behind their stories.  Hats off to Mackenzie Reide for her fine job as MC!

Me and Mackenzie Reide at the Bank Street Bookstore.

Mackenzie Reide and I at the Bank Street Bookstore.