Friday, March 09, 2007

Head-scratcher roundup

Three stories that explore the boundary between what's reasonable and what's not, what's criminal and what's not, and what's ethical and what's not.

What's reasonable?
A California school district has taken to billing parents who take their kids out of school for nonmedical reasons -- like a family ski trip. The price? $36.13 for each day missed. The reason? State aid is calculated based on daily attendance. So that's how much the district figures it loses when a kid goes absent. It's not really a bill -- parents aren't required to pay -- but some parents pay up either voluntarily or because they think it's a bill.

What's criminal?
Two Texas men were found guilty of mailing an obscene video. The video found to be obscene showed a woman being pierced with needles, but no sex. Meanwhile, the same jury said a rape video wasn't obscene -- even though the video had been deemed obscene in a 2003 trial. A third video featuring urination and defecation was also deemed unobscene.

What's ethical?
South Carolina is considering a bill that would let inmates cut their sentence by cutting out a kidney. Voluntary organ and tissue donations could shave as much as 180 days off of a jail term. While we're talking voluntary donations -- unlike, say, in China, where prisoners have been executed so the state could harvest their organs -- there's a question of whether prison is a coercive environment and whether prisoners fully understand what they're agreeing to. In addition, there's a legal hurdle: a federal law prohibiting organ donors from getting paid in any way for the donation.

All three situations raise interesting questions without any clear, easy answer. My initial reactions:

1. Parents can take their kids out of school if they want to, and a trip to Hawaii is arguably at least as educational as a week of school. I don't have a problem with the school educating parents about the importance of attendance and the costs of truancy, but the billing thing seems a little over the top.

2. I guess we'd have to see the videos in question (no thanks), but I have a hard time understanding how a video that shows no sex can be considered obscene, while the other two are not. Disgusting? Yes. Illegal? Why? At the very least we have a vague and muddy legal standard -- meaning the definition of what's illegal could vary by day and by jury. That's no way to run a legal system.

3. I'd be very, very wary of taking this step. I don't have a problem in principle with compensating donors. The problems are all practical. It only works if the entire transaction is fully transparent, and everyone is fully informed and truly a volunteer. The possibilities of abuse are high. And it exploits a vulnerable population. It's one thing to donate a kidney or bone marrow, even though both operations have their risks. What about muscle tissue or nerves or things like that? Suddenly we're in a grey area where we're mildly crippling prisoners. Do we really want people to start thinking about what body part they're willing to trade for freedom?

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