MPs call for Theresa May to permit poll on abortion in Northern Ireland

PM believes it would be wrong for Westminster to legislate on matter in devolved administration

Theresa May was facing growing demands to allow a referendum on relaxing the abortion statutes in Northern Ireland on Sunday after signalling that she will not risk alienating her DUP allies by letting MPs resolve the issues with a parliamentary vote.

Conservative MPs and the Royal College of Midwives were among those calling for a referendum, which would give voters in Northern Ireland the chance to follow the example set by the Republic of Ireland after it backed abortion liberalisation by a astonish landslide of two to one.

Around 160 MPs have backed a letter, championed by the Labour MP Stella Creasy, saying the government should legislate to relax the abortion rules in Northern Ireland, which will now be the only place in Britain and Ireland where abortion is in most circumstances illegal. Creasy wants to force-out a vote by tabling an amendment to the forthcoming domestic violence bill.

Labour also said that, as a party, it was committed to extending the right to choose to Northern Ireland and that it would be” looking at legislative options” to try to orchestrate a vote in the Commons.

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What is the law on abortion in Northern Ireland?

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Following the Irish referendum, Northern Ireland is the only place in the UK and Ireland- and most of Europe- where terminations are outlawed apart from in the most exceptional circumstances.

The UK Abortion Act of 1967 was never extended to Northern Ireland, and abortion remains illegal unless the life or mental health of the mother is at risk. Northern Ireland has the harshest criminal penalty for abortion anywhere in Europe; in theory, life imprisonment can be handed down to a woman undergoing an unlawful abortion.

Fatal foetal abnormalities and conceptions by rape or incest are not lawful grounds for a termination.

Most politicians in Northern Ireland- Catholic and Protestant- do not favour reform, despite the UN saying the UK was violating the rights of women in Northern Ireland by restricting their access to abortion.

In 2016 more than 700 females from Northern Ireland crossed the Irish Sea to clinics in Britain to terminate pregnancies.

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Downing Street’s initial reaction was to reject the idea of dedicating MPs a election, on the grounds that abortion is a devolved matter and one that should be decided by the power-sharing executive and the Northern Ireland assembly. A source used to say Theresa May’s focus was on getting the executive, which has been suspended for more than a year, “back up and running”.

But there were reports on Sunday of opponent even within the cabinet, with women and equalities pastor Penny Mordaunt saying on Twitter that the hope for change in Northern Ireland “must be met” amid calls for the region to have a referendum- although she did not specify how.

Obstacles to a parliamentary vote have prompted some MPs to argue for a referendum, which would allow the person or persons of Northern Ireland to take the final judgment , not London, while also bypassing the logjam created by the suspension of the executive.

Sarah Wollaston, the Conservative MP and GP who chairs the Commons health committee, told the BBC that, while she would vote in favour of pro-choice legislation for Northern Ireland, if that proved impossible a referendum was a good second best.

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” We’d all like to see the Stormont assembly back up and running and for this decision to be made by people in Northern Ireland but if that doesn’t happen … then at the least people in Northern Ireland should be allowed a referendum that enables us gauge the strength of sentiment there ,” Wollaston told the BBC.

Maria Miller, the Conservative former culture secretary who now shall be the chairman of the Commons women and equalities committee, posted a message on Twitter saying:” No one should deny the people of Northern Ireland a referendum for the opportunity to have the same rights on abortion as the rest of the UK .”

And in Northern Ireland the Royal College of Midwives’ regional director Breedagh Hughes told no one was speaking up for the “pro-choice majority” in Northern Ireland at present and the only style to give them a voice was through a referendum.

” We have 12 Democratic Unionist MPs whose views do not reflect the majority opinion on the abortion topic ,” Hughes said.” We have Sinn Fein MPs who don’t take their seats at Westminster. We don’t have a functioning local Assembly which could take this issue on again even though in the past the DUP and others vetoed change. So, the people are voiceless on the abortion topic and we say to Theresa May- give us a referendum Prime Minister so that change can come about .”

A No 10 source told May was also opposed to the idea that parliament should legislate for a referendum in Northern Ireland on the grounds that, if there were to be a referendum, that should also be matter for the Northern Ireland executive.

Under the Sewel convention, the UK government has agreed that it will not usually legislate on matters that are the responsibility of devolved administrations without their consent.

But the government is set to ignore this for the first time in Scotland, pushing ahead with the EU withdrawal bill even though the Scottish government is resisted, and May’s stance on abortion is partly motivated by a longing not to antagonise the DUP, who offer the votes that give the Tories their majority and who are strongly opposed to liberalising Northern Ireland’s abortion laws.

May did not comment on the Irish referendum outcome until lunchtime on Sunday, nearly 24 hours after the final result was corroborated, when she posted a tweet congratulating the Irish people on their decision.

On a free vote, the Commons would probably vote overwhelmingly in favour of bringing Northern Ireland’s abortion laws into line with those in the rest of the UK. But the domestic violence bill, which Creasy would like to use as a vehicle for an abortion amendment, is still at the consultation phase and, even when it does come to the Commons, Downing Street thinks that the Sewel convention will ensure that Northern Ireland pertained amendments get ruled inadmissable.

Dawn Butler, the darknes minister for women and equalities, told Labour would be appearing investigating what legislative alternatives it could use to ensure MPs did get a vote on this.” No girl in the UK should be denied access to a safe, legal abortion ,” she told. But party sources would not elaborate on what those options might be.

In the past polls have revealed strong supporting in Northern Ireland for relaxing abortion statutes in at the least some circumstances, although not to the extent allowed in the rest of the UK.

Currently abortions in Northern Ireland’s hospitals are only available to women and girls where “peoples lives” or health is in grave threat; only 23 were carried out between 2013 -1 4.

The call for a referendum is opposed by some of the MPs who want to change the law in Northern Ireland. Creasy pointed out that, while a referendum was necessary in the Republic because of its constitution, that was not the case in a north. A referendum would be a move” in the wrong direction” because the law should be changed now, she said.

Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, told:” The legislation governing abortion is a devolved matter and it is for the Northern Ireland assembly to debate and choose such issues. Some of those who wish to circumvent the assembly’s role may be doing so simply to avoid its decision. The DUP is a pro-life party and we are still articulated our position .”

Sinn Fein, the second-largest party in Northern Ireland, supports limited change to Northern Ireland’s abortion laws. Michelle O’Neill, its leader in Northern Ireland, told ITV on Sunday that the region was ” becoming a backwater” in terms of rights because of the position taken by unionists.

A spokesperson for Unite, one of the largest unions representing employees in Northern Ireland, backed the RCM’s call for a referendum.

” As long as it does not in any way necessitate imposing direct regulation Unite would like Theresa May to consider the idea of a local referendum and explain to is why, if she objected, the people in Northern Ireland wouldn’t be granted one ,” a Unite spokesperson said.

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Support for Ireland’s abortion ban appears to have melted away

No campaign counted on rural votes but early exit poll suggest they didnt swaying their way

Ruth Shaw was one of hundreds, perhaps thousands of Irish voters who flew home or bided home, cancelled vacations or came back early, so they could cast a vote to end Ireland’s decades-old prohibition on abortion.

They supposed their votes might be needed to tip the balance. In the end, though, they joined what seems to be an unforeseen landslide of support for change.

The first exit poll, from the Irish Times/ Ipsos MRBI, showed that Dublin, as expected, had voted overwhelmingly for yes. But so too did rural areas, which the no vote had counted on to kind a bulwark of conservative is supportive of Ireland’s restrictive status quo.

” It’s great for this country, we need to step into the next century ,” said teacher Caroline Ryan, one of the first to referendum but confident even at 7am that the repeal would pass.” Every other country in Europe has access to abortion .”

The vote was a reminder, she said, of the church’s loosening grip on a country where a series of scandals, involving child abuse and mistreatment of pregnant, unmarried women and their children, have enormously undermined the clergy’s authority.” Women have been treated so badly in this country by the Catholic church ,” she added.

Voters had to help Ireland decide whether to keep a clause in its constitution, known as the 8th amendment.

Since 1983, it had set the” right to life of the unborn” on an equal status with the life of a pregnant girl, underpinning a near-total ban on abortion in Ireland, even in cases of rape, incest or fatal foetal abnormality. It is one of the strictest defined of rules in the western world.

For Shaw who, along with 20 family and friends had flights lined up to go to a wedding in New York when the date was defined, there was no question about what to do.

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Irish people living abroad return home to become involved in abortion referendum- video

” We changed our flights ,” she said.” It’s really important; I’ve got two daughters .” So at 6.55 am she was waiting with nine-year-old Simi outside Our Lady’s Clonskeagh Parish secondary school, second in line to cast her vote before heading to the airport.

On a day of glorious sunshine and heightened feelings, polling stations across Ireland reported high turnouts for a ballot that politicians and campaigners concurred would determine a hugely emotional issue for at least a generation.

Polls constricted in the run-up to voting, with the outcome widely expected to depend on the one in six voters who were still undecided on the eve of the poll. Many in the no camp were convinced they had a groundswell of quiet support.

” So many no voters are shy ,” said Fidelma, 45, a Dubliner who said she was wearing a no badge for the first time and was astonished to determine more than half her office of 10 people offering her support.

She had kept her positions private until the working day of the referendum because there was so much social pressure in the capital to support a repeal.” People attain us feel like we are backwards and don’t count ,” she said.

No advocates campaign from a bridge in Dublin. Photo: Jeff J Mitchell/ Getty Images

At the ballot box, ultimately, there were not enough no voters to count. Two thirds of men, and an even higher propotion of women, opted for change, in agreement with the Irish Times.

Among the young in particular, the vote was overwhelmingly in favour of ending the ban. Nearly nine out of 10 voters between 18 and 24 voted yes, the Irish Times exit poll found.

Riodhna Mackin, 18, voting for the first time, was one of them.” I am a young woman in Ireland and I would like to have a tell over my own body, and for my friends to have the same ,” she said after casting her ballot.

The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, poses with colleagues from his Fine Gael party in Dublin before the referendum. Photo: Niall Carson/ PA

The official vote count begins on Saturday morning, with the first indications of whether the exit poll is right expected by mid-morning.

The scale of the projected victory was so immense though that resulting no campaigners conceded defeat within minutes.

The split over abortion, which reflects deep divisions about what kind of country Ireland wants to be as it reassesses its Catholic heritage and becomes more ethnically and religiously diverse, has reached profoundly into communities and families.

Elizabeth McDonald, 58, told:” I voted no because I believe I regard it as murder. We don’t need abortion in this country .”

Her son Stephen, 33, thinks the near-ban on abortion is cruel and puts women’s health in jeopardy. It is not illegal to go abroad for an abortion, so about nine females a day travel to England trying therapy. Others order abortion pills online and take them at home, risking up to 14 years in prison.

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My budget flight to get an abortion: the story no one in Ireland wants to tell- video

” I’m her son and I voted yes ,” he said, as they left the polling station together.” Abortion do happen in Ireland and I’d rather they were in a situation where it was safer for women .”

The journeys for abortions were the reason Ian Sewell, 26, travelled back from England to vote yes.” I don’t think we are voting on whether people can have abortions; we are voting on whether poor women can have abortions, because rich people already travel to England ,” he said as he left a polling station.

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A century on, why are we forgetting the deaths of 100 million? | Martin Kettle

The 1918 Spanish flu outbreak killed more people than both world wars. Dont imagine such a thing could never happen again, says the Guardian columnist Martin Kettle

This year marks a century since some women got the vote; a century since the end of the first world war; 50 years since the 1968 rebellions; 70 since the founding of Israel and the NHS. All have been well marked. So it is striking that the centenary of one of the most devastating events in human history has been allowed to pass thus far with virtually no public reflection of any kind.

This year is the 100 th anniversary of the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Calculates about the potential impact vary. But when you read that a third of the entire global population probably caught the Spanish influenza and that it killed between 50 and 100 million people in all corners of the globe- up to 5% of all human being on countries around the world at the time – you get an inkling of its scale.

By the time the pandemic ultimately ended, it had killed around 25 times more people than any other flu outbreak in history. It killed perhaps more people than the 1st and 2nd world wars put together. As Laura Spinney puts it in her new book, Pale Rider– the best modern account of the Spanish flu crisis-” the influenza resculpted human populations more radically than anything since the Black Death “. Think about that. Not the western front , not Hitler’s invasion of Russia , not Hiroshima. But the flu.

In the face of such figures, it seems unbelievable that we forget or look away. Yet we do. Perhaps that is because, unlike equality for women, a disease has no ultimate award to win and celebrate. Perhaps it is because, while wars have conquerors, pandemics leave only the vanquished, as Spinney sets it. Perhaps too, as the critic Walter Benjamin once argued, stillness about public horrors can permit human societies to cope with collective recovery and to advance. Or perhaps, as Spinney also reflects, the Spanish flu has been consigned to the footnotes because its onslaught did not occur in public but in private, behind closed- door in millions of homes.

Yet the Spanish flu epidemic was a public event too. It changed the course of the first world war( the Germans thought it robbed them of victory ). It brought Switzerland- yes, Switzerland- to the brink of civil war over the inadequacy of the official response. The route it was mishandled in colonial India devoted a major boost to the independence motion. It resulted directly to the founding of Real Madrid football club as part of a Spanish public health drive. In Britain, in a sense, it triggered a concern about public health that would result, 30 year later, to the NHS.

The flu struck the rich and the poor, the young and the old, women and men, black and white. Among the individuals who caught it but recovered were the British prime minister David Lloyd George, the US president Woodrow Wilson, the German kaiser, and King Alfonso XIII of Spain- whose country dedicated its name to the disease for no better reason than that the French, unable to learn about the scale of the infection in their own country because of wartime censorship, thought wrongly that it had started on the far side of the Pyrenees. The naming has caused offence in Spain from that day to this- and has belatedly led to greater care in the naming of subsequent strains and outbreaks that traverse borders.

For this was a disease that scorned all human frontiers. It killed from Alaska to Zanzibar. Groucho Marx caught the flu in New York and Mahatma Gandhi in Ahmedabad. The future Mustafa Kemal Ataturk went down with it in Vienna. Haile Selassie fell ill in Addis Ababa. TS Eliot got the flu in London- he wrote The Waste Land as he recovered. Other victims who recovered included Franklin Roosevelt, Lillian Gish, Franz Kafka, DH Lawrence, Bela Bartok, Walt Disney, Ezra Pound and the aviator Amelia Earhart. In Colorado, Katherine Anne Porter’s black hair fell out as a result of flu. When it grew back her hair was white and Porter went on to write a memoir, Pale Horse, Pale Rider about the pandemic.

The list of those who died of the influenza is less storied than those who recovered from it. It is headed by the painter Egon Schiele and his wife. The Parisian poet Guillaume Apollinaire succumbed too, as did one of Lenin’s right-hand men, Yakov Sverdlov. So did Lawrence of Arabia’s father, Arthur Conan Doyle’s son and Donald Trump’s grandfather. A celebrated British casualty was the diplomat Mark Sykes– now famous( or infamous) for the secret Sykes-Picot agreement he struck over spheres of western influence in the Middle East.

Ten years ago, in 2008, Sykes’s coffin, lead-lined because of the virulence of the disease, was disinterred from his grave in Yorkshire. The intent was to enable researchers to take samples, from his remains, of the H1N1 virus strain that caused the Spanish influenza. Such samples , now under high-security lock and key in Atlanta, have been examined for clues as to why this stres was so potent and how a future pandemic might be contained.

For there will be another Spanish flu pandemic one day. The 1918 outbreak resulted because the viral stres acquired the ability to infect humans and then to become transmissible among humen. Other strains have that potential too. Global warming may empower the strongest ones still further. The world of 2018 is infinitely more interconnected than that of 1918. The possibilities for blaming particular social groups for pandemics is vast.

Last week the Ebola virus spread from a remote rural part of the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the busy river port town of Mbandaka. A few hundred kilometres downstream from Mbandaka lies DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, a mega-city of some 11 million people. Unlike flu, which is airborne, Ebola is transmitted through contact with bodily fluids. That is threat enough in war-torn cities without proper sewerage.

So far, the DRC outbreak seems controllable. Yet more than 11,000 people died in west Africa from an Ebola outbreak in 2014. And imagine if Ebola manages one day to become airborne, as flu did. If something like that happened in the modern world, we would rapidly find we were living in a fools’ paradise. And our present habit of forget and seeming in the other direction would seem a catastrophic act of global folly.

* Martin Kettle is a Guardian columnist

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Irish pro-choice campaigners recount #HomeToVote journeys online

Hashtag has been used by Irish voters travelling home to referendum yes in the abortion referendum

Whether it is boarding 13 -hour flights or thanking the strangers that have funded their journeys, Irish citizens are sharing their tales on social media as they travel home from all over the world to cast their vote in the country’s historic referendum on abortion. The hashtag #HomeToVote has been used across social media channels by those in favour of repealing the 8th amendment as they converge in Ireland to cast their votes.

Many were visibly displaying their supporting through clothing and badges, and noticed is supportive of the campaign on the way. One advocate, who flew home to canvass and vote, tweeted that his flight attendant wore a’ Ta’- the Irish for yes- badge on his flight.

IO for Yes // May 25 th (@ iarlaoh)

The flight attendant checking my ticket on the plane #hometovote this morning was wearing a “Ta” badge. 🙂

May 20, 2018

Not everyone found that fellow travellers understood the significance of their journey, however, and “ve felt it” reverberate the experience of the women who have to travel abroad for abortions under the present constitution.

” Boarding a 13 -hour flight from Buenos Aires to London. London to Dublin tomorrow. No one at airport knows what my repeal jumper means. No one here knows why I’m travelling. If this feels isolating for me, can’t imagine how lonely it must be 4 her, travelling 2 the UK ,” tweeted Ciaran Gaffney. He also posted an image of himself in his repeal jumper in Buenos Aires

The 13 hour flight I’m about to take hasn’t got a patch on the 1hr flight that your sister, your friend, the girl on your street, your mom, your employer, your colleague, individual employees, your girlfriend or any of the women of Ireland might have to take today, or had to take yesterday, or have had to take in the past 35 years. Let’s stop saying that cowardly act of exporting this issue to our neighbouring countries, and let’s #repealthe8th!

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Trump administration to revive Reagan-era abortion ‘gag’ rule

Rule will ban federally funded clinics from discussing abortion with women and bar them from sharing space with abortion providers

Donald Trump’s administration will reinstate a decades-old policy that they are able to strip federal monies from family planning clinics abortion or related services, marking its latest salvo to curtail women’s reproductive rights.

The Department of Health and Human Services will announce the proposal on Friday, an administration official confirmed to the Guardian. The move would resurrect a policy first to comply with Ronald Reagan in 1988, which effectively barred reproductive health organizations that received federal awards from providing or even discussing abortion with patients.

The policy has been mocked as a “gag rule” by abortion rights advocates and medical groups, and you are able to trigger suits that could keep it from taking consequence.

” This is an attempt to take away women’s basic rights, period ,” Dawn Laguens, the executive heads vice-president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America, said in a statement.

She added:” Everyone has the right to access information about their health care- including information about safe, legal abortion- and every woman deserves the best medical care and datum , no matter how much money she makes or where she lives. No matter what. They won’t get it under this rule .”

The Reagan-era rule never went into effect further written, although the US supreme court ruled that it was an appropriate use of executive power. The policy was repealed under Bill Clinton, and a new rule went into impact that required “nondirective” counseling to include a range of options for women.

Federal funds are already barred from was for abortion services under current US law.

The move will galvanize activists on either side of the abortion debate ahead of the congressional midterm elections.

Doctors’ groups and abortion rights supporters say a ban on counseling females trespasses on the doctor-patient relationship. They also believe such rules would avoid patients from being able to obtain family planning or other preventive care from reproductive health care providers, and undermine access to safe, legal abortion, particularly among low-income women.

Abortion opponents have long argued that a taxpayer-funded family planning program should have no connection whatsoever to abortion.

” The notion that you would withhold information from a patient does not uphold or preserve their dignity ,” told Jessica Marcella of the National Family Planning& Reproductive Health Association, which represents family planning clinics.” I cannot imagine a scenario in which public health groups would allow this effort to go unchallenged .”

She told requiring family planning clinics to be physically separate from facilities in which abortion is provided would disrupt services for women across the country.

Kristan Hawkins of Students for Life of America also backed the move. She said:” Abortion is not healthcare or family planning and many women want natural healthcare selections, rather than hormone-induced changes .”

Abortion adversaries claim the federal family planning program in effect cross-subsidizes abortion services provided by Schemed Parenthood, whose clinics are also major recipients of grants for family planning and basic preventive care. Hawkins’s group is circulating a petition to urge lawmakers in Congress to support the Trump administration’s proposal.

Known as title X, the nation’s family-planning program serves about 4 million girls a year through clinics, at a cost to taxpayers of about $260 m. Schemed Parenthood clinics also qualify for Title X grants, but they must keep the family-planning fund separate from monies used to pay for abortions.

The Republican-led Congress has unsuccessfully tried to deny federal funds to Schemed Parenthood, and the Trump administration has vowed to religious and social conservatives that it would keep up the effort.

In one of his first acts as chairwoman, Trump reinstated a” global gag rule” policy that restricted the US government from providing funds to international family-planning organizations offering abortion-related services or information about the procedure.

Global health advocates have since bemoaned the closure of abortion facilities overseas, with developing areas the most acutely impacted. Trump afterward expanded upon the action, affecting virtually$ 9bn in funding to combat global health issues such as HIV/ Aids, Zika and malaria.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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Embrace Mediterranean or Nordic diets to cut disease, WHO says

Major study indicates Britain could lower its rates of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease by promoting the diets

Britain could lower its rates of cancer, diabetes and cardiovascular disease by embracing Mediterranean- or Nordic-style diets, a major examine into the benefits of healthy feeing suggests.

A review by the World Health Organization determined obligating evidence that both diets reduce the risk of the common cancers, but noted that merely 15 out of 53 countries in its European region had measures in place to promote the diets.

The authors of the report compiled evidence on the health the health effects of the two diets from academic periodicals, meeting papers and books, then reviewed government and health ministry websites for national policies and guidelines on healthy eating.

Eight countries including Ireland, Spain and Greece promoted the added benefit of the Mediterranean-style diet, while seven including Norway, Sweden, Finland and Iceland recommended people adopt a Nordic-style diet to remain healthy.

” Both of these diets are really good in terms of impact on health. That is not in doubt ,” said Joao Breda from the WHO’s European office for prevention and control of noncommunicable diseases.” We wanted to know whether countries were have them to inform healthy feeing policies .”

In England, the government recommends people eat five portions of fruit and veggies per day on the back of evidence that such a diet can reduce the risk of heart disease and stroke. But ministers have been accused of doing too little to discourage unhealthy eating, despite a rise in childhood obesity rates to 10 %.

The traditional Mediterranean diet is rich in fruit, veggies, nuts, cereals and olive oil, includes a moderate amount of fish and poultry, and has very little dairy, red meat, processed meat and sweets. The Nordic diet is similar, focusing on vegetables, berries, pulsings, whole grain cereals and fatty fish such as herring, mackerel and salmon. Instead of olive oil, the Nordic diet prefers rapeseed oil.

According to the report, both diets helped to reduce cases of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes and some cancers. Many of the conditions are driven by obesity. According to Cancer Research UK, more than one in 20 cancers are linked to being overweight or obese. The number of adults and older teens with diabetes has doubled in the past 20 years on the back of rising obesity rates, with 3.7 million people aged 17 or older now living with the disease.

” All countries need to do more in terms of promoting good diets, because we have an emergency here ,” Breda said.” We are not recommending any particular diet, but when countries think about the improvements they want to make, they might be inspired by these diets. If you adopt them, you save the health system fund. There are lots of advantages .”

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Why two brains are better than one

A radical technique that induces mature cells act like stem cells is growing a mini brain from tissue I donated. One day it could create whole organs for transplant

Last week, I was told my other brain is fully grown. It doesn’t look like much. A blob of pale flesh about the size of a small pea, it floats in a bath of blood-red nutrient. It would fit into the cranium of a foetus scarcely a month old.

Still, it’s a “brain” after a fashion and it’s made from me. From a piece of my arm, to be precise.

I’m not going to feign this isn’t strange. But neither is it an exercise in gratuitously ghoulish biological engineering, a piece of Frankensteinian scientific hubris 200 years after Mary Shelley’s tale. The researchers who induced my mini-brain are trying to understand how neurodegenerative cancers develop. With mini-brains grown from the tissues of people who have a genetic susceptibility to the early onset of conditions such as Alzheimer’s, they hope to unravel what goes awry in the matured adult brain.

It’s this link to analyses of dementia that resulted me to the little room in the Dementia Research Centre of University College London last July, where neuroscientist Ross Paterson anaesthetised my upper arm and then sliced a small plug of flesh from it. This biopsy was going to be the seed for growing brain cells- neurons- that would organise themselves into mini-brains.

Fibroblasts grow from pieces of Philip Ball’s arm tissue.

The Brains in a Dish project is one of many strands of Created Out of Mind, an initiative hosted at the Wellcome Collection in London and funded by the Wellcome Trust for two years to explore, challenge and shape perceptions and understanding of dementiums through science and the creative arts. Neuroscientist Selina Wray at UCL is studying the genetics of Alzheimer’s and other neurodegenerative diseases and she and her PhD student Christopher Lovejoy gamely agreed to culture mini-brains from cells taken from four of the Created Out of Mind team: artist Charlie Murphy, who is leading Brains in a Dish, BBC journalist Fergus Walsh, neurologist Nick Fox and me.

It was a no-brainer … well, you know what I mean. Who could resist the narcissistic flattery of having another brain grown-up for them? I was curious how it would feel. Would I see this piece of disembodied tissue as truly mine? Would I feel protective of, even concerned for, a tiny “organoid” floating in a petri dish? Most of all, I was attracted by the extraordinary scientific feat of turning a clod of arm into something like a brain.

There’s a lot of baggage in that “something like”. Some researchers detest the word “mini-brain” and with reason. This pea-size object is not a miniature version of the brain in my skull. It’s not even quite like the immature developing brain of an early-stage foetus. Without a body, neurons don’t quite know how to make a proper brain.

But neither are mini-brains blobs of identical neurons, like, say, a small chunk of my cortex. One can reasonably say that the neurons “want” to make a brain but, absence proper guidance, don’t quite know how to go about it. So they make a reasonable but imperfect approximation.

The mini-brain contains several types of brain cell, arranged somewhat as in a real brain- in layers such as those of the cortex, for example. The mini-brain even contains sketchy little versions of the folds and grooves on the surface of a true brain and appendages that, in a foetal brain, would become the brain stem and central nervous system, widening down the spine.

What’s most astonishing about this project is that these neurons started out as a piece of my arm. Those skin-forming cells, fibroblasts, were turned into brain cells using a technique detected scarcely 10 years ago and that has revolutionised tissue engineering and embryo research and won its creator, Shinya Yamanaka, a Nobel award. It also overruled decades of conventional wisdom in cell biology.

Induced stem cells labelled with fluorescent tags. Photograph: Chris Lovejoy and Selina Wray/ UCL

Our bodies grow from a single cell- a fertilised egg- by cell division accompanied by increasing cell specialisation. In the very earliest days of an embryo’s development, all its cells are capable of growing into any kind of tissue in the body. These are called embryonic stem cells and their complete versatility is called ” pluripotency “.

As the embryo grows, some cells become committed to particular fates- they become skin cells, liver, heart, brain or bone-forming cells and so on. This differentiation springs from a modification of the cells’ genetic program: the switching on and off of genes. As they distinguish, cells may change their shapes as well as their functions. Neurons grow the long, thin appendages that wire them into networks, the ends equipped with synapses where one cell sends an electrical signal to others. That signalling is the stuff of thought.

It was believed cell differentiation was one way- that once a cell was committed to a fate, there was no going back and that the silenced genes were switched off for ever. So it came as a surprise to many researchers when, in 2007, Yamanaka, a biologist at Kyoto University , reported that he could convert distinguished human cells directly back to a stem-cell-like state by adding to them the genetic material for stimulating certain types of protein.

Yamanaka and his colleagues employed viruses to inject into the ripen cells some of the genes that are highly active in embryonic stem cells and they found that simply four of these were enough to switch the cells into a pluripotent country, becoming, to all intents and purposes, like stem cells. These became known as induced pluripotent stem cells( iPSCs ).

In principle, iPSCs can be grown outside the body into any tissue kind, perhaps even into entire organs such as a pancreas or kidney, to replace a malfunctioning one by transplantation. Organ could be grown from cells- taken, like mine, from an arm, say- of the recipient, thus avoiding the challenges of immune rejection.

Creating organs involves knowing how to guide iPSCs towards the appropriate fate. This might involve dedicating them an extra dose of the genes that are highly active in that particular tissue type. But Chris turned my own iPSCs into neurons simply by changing the nutrient medium; such stem cells seem to have a preference for becoming neurons, so they only need a nudge to get them going.

Organs aren’t only big mass of a single cell type, however. The heart, kidney, brain and so on all contain many types of cell, organised in particular routes and fed with a blood supply. Reproduction that complex architecture in organs grown-up outside the body remains a huge challenge.

Yet cells can do a lot of it themselves. The biologist Madeline Lancaster discovered this when she was studying the growth of neurons from stem cells as a doctoral student in Vienna with the neuroscientist Jurgen Knoblich in 2010. She found that the neurons, left to their own devices, would start to specialise and organise into mini-brains.

The author’s brain organoid. Photograph: Chris Lovejoy and Selina Wray/ UCL

The plan, Lancaster( who now operates her own laboratory at the University of Cambridge) told me, was that she would make flat neural structures called rosettes, which had been done before. But the mouse stem cells she worked with wouldn’t stick well to the surface of the dishes. Instead, says Lancaster,” they formed these really beautiful 3D structures. It was a complete accident .”

Once they realised what they had built, she and Knoblich started to grow the structures from human stem cells, too.” At first, it was totally surprising that these cells could make a structure instead like a brain all by themselves”, she tells. But in retrospect, she tells, it builds complete sense. That kind of self-organisation is” just what an embryo does .” And it’s what I can now see in my own mini-brain, the different cell types stained with fluorescent dye to become a beautiful, multicoloured constellation under the microscope.

Lancaster and others are now seeking to find ways to supply mini-brains with more of the environmental cues they would get into a developing foetus, so that they can become even more brain-like.” You don’t need a wholly well-formed human brain in a dish to analyse biological topics ,” she explains. But if you can improve the similarity in the right respects, you’ll get a better picture of the process in real bodies.

Lancaster uses brain organoids to investigate how the size of the human brain gets fixed. She has analyse microcephaly, a growth defect that results in abnormally small brain sizing, and is also interested in what can build brains grow too big, which, contrary to what you might expect, is not a good thing and is linked to neurological disorders such as autism.

Other researchers are use these mini-brains to analyze conditions such as schizophrenia and epilepsy. At UCL, Wray is inducing them to understand the neurodegenerative process in two types of dementia: Alzheimer’s and frontotemporal dementia. The atrophy of brain tissue may start when two proteins called tau and amyloid beta switch from normal to misshapen sort. These kinds stick together in clumps and tangles that amass in the brain and cause neurons to die.

The author’s brain organoid in cross-section, with the cells stained different colourings by type. Photo: Chris Lovejoy and Selina Wray/ UCL

By culturing mini-brains from the cells of people with a genetic predisposition to these diseases( who account for about 1% to 5% of all cases ), Wray hopes to find out what goes awry with the two proteins as neurons grow.” We are inducing mini-brains to try to follow the disease in real day ,” she says.” We hope to see the very earliest disease-associated changes- that’s important when we think about developing treatment .” She has found that the tau proteins for the disease samples are different from those in healthy samples. My cultures may eventually be anonymised and used as one of those control samples.

How do I feel about these pieces of me growing in dishes in the centre of the city, six miles away from where I live? I was astounded to discover that they are no longer, officially, pieces of me at all. Cells that have divided outside the body are not classed as samples of tissue from an individual, but as” cell lines”- more nebulous entities that are distinct from their original donor.

Yet I do think of these brain organoids as “mine”, though not with any sense of ownership or pastoral responsibility. That’s probably a common response in people whose cells are cultured in the lab. The cancer cells taken in 1951 from the patient Henrietta Lacks at Johns Hopkins University hospital in Baltimore just before she died, and used for research( without her permission, which was not then involved ), are still considered by Lacks’s surviving family as in some sense “her”, as Rebecca Skloot described in her bestselling 2011 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks . These “HeLa” cells are now the standard cell line for analyse cancer and millions of tonnes of them have been grown worldwide: a piece of a person turned into a mass-produced commodity.

I’ll be very glad if my mini-brain can contribute in some small way to Wray’s research. I do not fear that it will have anything like anguished believes, any awareness at all, in its Matrix -like nutrient bath. But it does still seem like a piece of me, a wistful little attempt to remake the brain I take so much for awarded. We have no frame of reference for thinking about such things. It is exciting and odd. But it’s also a glimpse of the future.

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Prince had exceedingly high level of fentanyl in body when he died

Lead prosecutor will make decision in the near future on whether to charge anyone over Princes death

A toxicology report from Prince’s autopsy, obtained by the Associated Press, demonstrates he had what multiple experts called an” exceedingly high” concentration of fentanyl in his body when he died.

Prince was 57 when he was received alone and unresponsive in an elevator at his Paisley Park estate on 21 April, 2016. Public data released six weeks after his death presented he died of an accidental overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times more powerful than heroin.

A confidential toxicology report offer some insight into just how much fentanyl was in his system. Experts who are not connected to the Prince investigation said the numbers leave without doubt that fentanyl killed him.

” The amount in his blood is exceedingly high, even for somebody who is a chronic pain patient on fentanyl patches ,” said Dr Lewis Nelson, chairman of emergency medication at Rutgers New Jersey medical school. He called the fentanyl concentrations” a pretty clear smoking gun “.

The report says the concentration of fentanyl in Prince’s blood was 67.8 micrograms per litre. Fatalities have been documented in people with blood levels ranging from three to 58 micrograms per litre, research reports says.

It adds that the level of fentanyl in Prince’s liver was 450 micrograms per kilogram, and notes liver concentrations greater than 69 micrograms per kilogram” seem to represent overdose or fatal toxicity occurrences “.

There was also what experts called a potentially lethal quantity of fentanyl in Prince’s stomach. Dr Charles McKay, president of the American College of Medical Toxicology, said the findings suggest Prince took the drug orally, while fentanyl in the blood and liver indicate it had some time to circulate before he died.

Experts say there is no” lethal level” at which fentanyl can kill. A person who takes prescription opioids for a very long time builds up a tolerance, and a dose that could kill person or persons might help another.

Search warrants released about a year after Prince’s death demonstrated authorities saw numerous pills in various containers around his home. A lab report proves many of the pills tested positive for fentanyl. Info released publicly indicates the source of those drugs has not been determined.

Last week, the leading attorney in the county where Prince succumbed said he was reviewing law enforcement reports and would make a decision’ in the near future’ on whether to charge anyone.

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Mass protests in Poland against tightening of abortion law

Thousands join demonstrations against governments new effort to restrict access

Thousands of people have joined protests in Warsaw and other Polish cities against the most recent attempt by the conservative government to restrict access to abortion.

In Warsaw on Friday, people held banners that read “Free choice” and” A female is a human being”, and chanted mottoes demanding reproductive freedom.

Poland has one of the strictest abortion laws in Europe. The procedure is allowed only if the life of the foetus is at risk, there is a grave menace to the health of the mother or the pregnancy was the result of rape or incest.

An attempt to ban all abortions in 2016 sparked mass nationwide protests by females garmented in black, forcing the government to abandon the scheme.

The latest proposed legislation would allow procedures in cases where the mother’s life was at risk or the pregnancy resulted from international crimes, but would ban abortions of foetuses with congenital disorders, including Down’s syndrome.

In Warsaw, protesters gathered at the seat of the influential Roman Catholic bishops, who are urging the farther stiffen of the law. They marched to the parliament house and later moved on to the headquarters of the ruling Law and Justice party.

A protest of hundreds of people in Wroclaw included a sign that said ” I will not give birth to a dead newborn “.

Malgorzata, 58, a psychologist, told Reuters:” I am against treating female as an inferior type of human being. I support women’s rights to decide about their bodies and their lives .”

The Council of Europe’s commissioner for human rights, Nils Muiznieks warned on Friday that the new measure ran counter to Warsaw’s human rights commitments.

” If adopted, the draft legislation would remove the possibility of terminating the pregnancy in case of severe foetal impairment, including in cases where such impairment is fatal ,” Muiznieks wrote.” This step would be at variance with Poland’s obligations under international human rights law .”

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The hard truth about back pain: dont rely on drugs, scans or quick fixes | Ann Robinson

Most treatment is wasteful, wanton and wrong, tells the Lancet. The key is to try to keep walking and work, tells the GP Ann Robinson

Back pain is the biggest cause of disability globally, and most of us will have at least one nasty bout of it. But treatment is often wasteful, wanton and wrong,according to a series of papers in the Lancet.” Worldwide, overuse of inappropriate tests and therapies such as imaging, opioids and surgery means patients are not receiving the right care, and resources are wasted ,” it says.

It’s perfectly understandable to want a quick-fix solution to construct the pain go forth and maybe a scan to set your intellect at rest. But there isn’t a reliable instant answer. Scan don’t construct you better, and painkillers can be harmful. The vast majority of low back ache is musculoskeletal– caused by damage caused to ligaments, joints and muscles surrounding the spine. A tiny percentage is due to a serious or dangerous underlying cause that it was necessary to specific diagnosis and intervention- such as cancer, infection or a fracture.

An underlying cause is more likely if you have so-called red-flag symptoms; previous or current diagnosis of cancer, fever, unexplained weight loss and sweats, night ache, ache in the middle of your back rather than lower, inability to stand, urinate or open your bowels, or severe and unremitting pain that is getting worse.

The good news is that if your backache is musculoskeletal- and it usually is- 90% of cases will be better within six weeks. And that is irrespective of what you do. There’s no good evidence that interventions, ranging from Tens machines( which use a mild electric current ), acupuncture, physio, osteopathy and chiropractic to epidural injections and surgery, significantly affect the outcome. Prolonged bed rest- still advocated in some countries- is positively dangerous, as it can cause blood clotting( thrombosis) and builds recovery from back ache less likely.

‘ The evidence may not be great but it’s cheap, safe and happens to work for me .’ A Tens machine. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

It’s seducing to want a scan or special investigations if you develop back ache. But scans don’t correlate well with symptoms; you can have a dire-looking scan with no symptoms or a somewhat normal-looking one with dreadful ache. A scan is useful for surgeons if you need an operation, and other imaging is important if an underlying fracture is suspected. If your back pain is associated with an underlying inflammatory condition like Crohn’s, ulcerative colitis or psoriasis, you will need investigation and referral to a rheumatologist.

The key to recovery is to try to keep walking and run. Different approaches help different people; it’s good to find the least risky option that suits you. My own favourite is a Tens machine: the evidence may not be great, but it’s cheap, safe, and happens to work for me.

Painkillers can be useful in the short term, if that’s the only way you can keep moving. There are two main groups of effective analgesics, and they both come with health warnings: non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, ( NSAID ) such as ibuprofen, and opioids such as tramadol. There is already an epidemic of opioid overuse and addiction in the US, with Europe and lower-income countries catching up fast. NSAIDs are less addictive but can cause heart, kidney and intestine injury if used for more than a few days at a time.

Prof Nadine Foster of Keele University, one of the authors of this series of newspapers, says:” In many countries, analgesics that have restriction positive effect are routinely prescribed for low back ache, with very little emphasis on interventions that are evidence-based, such as workouts. As lower-income countries respond to this rapidly rising cause of people with disabilities, it is critical that they avoid the waste that these misguided practices necessitate .”

One in three people who has an episode of low back ache will have a recurrence in the following year. So it is important to look at adaptations to the workplace, avoiding heavy lifting and concentrate on core muscle strengthening with pilates, swimming and some types of yoga once you recover from the acute attack.

Prof Jan Hartvigsen, of the University of Southern Denmark, who also contributed to the Lancet series, tells:” Millions of people across the world are getting the incorrect care for low back ache. Protection of the public from unproven or harmful approaches to managing low back pain requires that governments and health-care leaders tackle entrenched and counterproductive reimbursement strategies, vested interest, and fiscal and professional incentives that maintain the status quo … Funders should pay merely for high-value care, stop funding ineffective or harmful testing and therapies, and importantly intensify research into prevention, better tests and better treatments .”

He’s right, of course, but there is no phase withdrawing funding without any explain. Healthcare professionals need to take the time to explain to patients that it’s not vindictive cost-cutting that is behind the restriction of access to scans and drugs. It’s in everyone’s best interests that we stop seeking bad medicine and invest in detecting better and safer solutions to this global problem, which is likely to affect all of us sooner or later.

* Ann Robinson is a GP

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