Marriage Isn’t A Recent Invention

Laurie Essig is a lesbian with a message — marriage, whether
between gay or heterosexual couples, is wrong. And Essig isn’t about to let
tiny details like historical facts get in the way (Same-sex marriage).

Essig’s argument against marriage is the typical radical feminist
view that was borrowed from Marxism — marriage is an inherently
oppressive social institution. “Although we like to pretend that marriage is
natural and universal,” Essig writes, “it is an institution founded in
historical, material and cultural conditions that ensured women’s

The logical fallacy here is jumping to the conclusion that any
social institution created by an oppressive culture must itself, by
definition, be oppressive. Taking this argument at its face value is what
leads some radical feminists to condemn things like science as inherently
oppressive to women.

But Essig really drops the ball when she bizarrely claims that
“Monogamous, heterosexual marriages were an invention of the Industrial
Revolution’s emerging middle-class.” This claim is so absurdly wrong that
it’s unbelievable the Salon editor’s let it pass.

Monogamous, heterosexual marriage didn’t exist until the Industrial
Revolution? That assertion would have come as a shock to the Romans,
the Hebrews, the Greeks and a whole host of other societies that
practiced monogamous, heterosexual marriage. Has Essig really never noticed the
numerous proscriptions against adultery in the Old Testament? Or read
any of the tedious Church writings on marriage in medieval Europe?

Even in cultures where monogamous marriage was not the rule, some
form of marriage institution is pretty much universal (anyone who
disagree is more than welcome to name a single culture that had absolutely no
marriage-like institution).

In fact, although clearly most Westerners today might not want some
of the sexist excesses of medieval or even Victorian marriage, marriage
survives as an institution precisely because it appeals to something
very deep in the human psyche. Essig finds this impulse to marriage

What annoys me is that no one, not even queers, can imagine anything
other than marriage as a model for organizing our desires.

Essig does have a point that the state shouldn’t favor (nor
penalize) marriage over other forms of personal relationships. Someone who
wants to remain single shouldn’t be penalized for that decision (although
today it is married couples, not single individuals, who are penalized
by the tax code).

Other than that, though, Essig’s attack on marriage as a social
institution is historically inaccurate and absurd.

Death Penalty Opponents Lose High Stakes Gamble

    It finally happened. Anti-capital punishment activists started to get on the bandwagon of Ricky McGinn, who is scheduled to be executed in Texas. In 1995, McGinn was convicted of raping and murdering his 12-year-old stepdaughter, Stephanie Flanary.

    DNA testing had been done previously on pubic hairs and semen found on the body of the victim, but the tests at that time were inconclusive. McGinn, who maintains he’s innocent, wanted to have the material re-tested using more accurate tests that are now available. The state of Texas denied such an avenue, but Gov. George W. Bush gave McGinn a 30 day reprieve to conduct the testing.

    And the results apparently show what prosecutors maintained all along — the pubic hair belongs to either McGinn or a very close maternal relative of his. This pretty much puts the nail in the coffin for McGinn, and in the long term for the anti-capital punishment movement.

    Capital punishment foes like to tout new polls showing that support for the death penalty has declined in recent years — today only two-thirds of Americans support capital punishment despite the well-publicized incidents of innocent people ending up on death row. That’s down from a high of 80 percent a few years ago. Most of that drop can probably be ascribed to the question over guilt and innocence, but DNA testing is going to take care of all their fears.

    Already smart death penalty supporters are taking the obvious step to secure the future of capital punishment — they are pushing for laws to grant those convicted of capital crimes additional appeals to resolve DNA-related evidence issues. Once that is in place and Americans are assure that, wherever possible, DNA testing is done to make sure that the odds of an innocent person are astronomically low, support for capital punishment will again reach into the 80 percent range. In fact, with the advent of widespread DNA testing I wouldn’t be surprised to see capital punishment instituted in many states that currently don’t execute criminals. (such as Michigan, where I live).

    Although the anti-capital punishment forces have done an excellent job of winning individual battles and freeing innocent people from death row, but they’ve lost the war for the hearts and minds of the American people on the morality of the issue. The coming use of DNA to reduce the risk of executing innocent people will only further cement the pro-execution stance of most Americans and put the anti-capital punishment movement back at square one.

Taleban Bans Women Aid Workers

According to the BBC the Taleban, the group of Islamic fundamentalists in power in Afghanistan, recently arrested an American aid worker and ordered the United Nations and other aid agencies to fire any Afghanistan women working with the agencies. The BBC estimated there are several hundred such women working for aid agencies.

Mary MacMakin, the American woman arrested by the Taleban, is in her seventies and has worked on aid projects in Afghanistan on and off for 40 years. MacMakin was arrested with her staff and nine male aid workers. The men were released earlier, but MacMakin is still being detained. MacMakin was working on a project teaching widows in Kabul to make carpets and other projects.

The Afghanistan regime has become infamous around the world for its strict sex laws, including a ban on women working outside the home. That ban had been moderated somewhat in recent months when the Taleban exempted women working in certain sectors such as health care, but the arrest of MacMakin and the ban on female aid workers suggests a turn back toward the group’s ultra conservative policies.


Taleban move against women workers. The BBC, July 10, 2000.

OTC the Pill Already

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is considering reclassifying a number of prescription drugs and turning them into drugs that would be available over the counter. Among the drugs under consideration for OTC status is the birth control pill. Such a move is long over due.

There is already some precedent for making this move. In some states pills that induce abortion can already be dispensed by pharmacists which makes them effectively over the counter drugs. Why not make the Pill, which hundreds of millions of women have safely taken, available without a prescription as well? Why shouldn’t a woman be able to walk into a drug store and buy birth control pills without going to see a doctor first?

The main argument against making the Pill available over-the-counter are the tired old paternalist arguments about protecting patients from themselves. Although the Pill is a relatively safe drug, a small percentage of women will have side effects and need to consult a physician to find the best drug for them. But this problem is no more egregious than the side effects that other OTC drugs have — after all aspirin is a potential killer when taken by certain people, yet it’s been available over-the-counter literally since it was first widely available.

It’s very important to have the convenience of popping down to a drug store for an aspirin or ibuprofen pain killer, and the same sort of freedom and convenience should be extended to birth control drugs.

Ironically while only one major anti-abortion group, the American Life League, has weighed in decrying the move to make birth control easily available without a prescription, the National Abortion and Reproductive Rights League and Planned Parenthood are both oddly ambivalent about the whole issue. Salon quotes NARAL attorney Elizabeth Arndorfer as saying, “Using emergency contraception is a one-time thing that many recent studies have shown to be effective. But there are contraindications for some women using the birth control pill longer term. It may be better for a doctor to keep an eye it.”

So women are intelligent and capable of making the choice for themselves whether or not to have an abortion, but they are too irresponsible to seek out information on the birth control pill and decide for themselves whether or not to take it.

Women are not simply moral patients, they are moral actors. Women are more than capable of deciding for themselves whether or not to take a drug such as the Pill. The FDA should approve the Pill for over the counter sales as soon as possible.


The silence of the Pill. Leah Kohlenberg, Salon.Com, July 10, 2000.

No prescription for the pill?. CNN, June 29, 2000.

The FBI’s Carnivorous Appetite

    At the same time that politicians have been complaining that e-commerce companies aren’t doing enough to respect the privacy of Internet users, along comes the revelation that the FBI has developed an electronic surveillance system called Carnivore which lets it monitor millions of e-mails.

    The system is as simple as it is insidious. First, the FBI obtains a court order to monitor the email of a particular person. These have become trivially easy to get thanks to the Clinton administration. Second, the FBI goes to the Internet Service Provider that the person uses and attaches its Carnivore system. Basically the Carnivore system intercepts every single e-mail message that is coming in through that system and is supposed to then filter out and capture only the e-mail from the person covered under the court order.

    But as former federal computer-crimes prosecutor Mark Rasch told the Wall Street Journal, this is “the electronic equivalent of listening to everybody’s phone calls to see if it’s the phone call you should be monitoring. You develop a tremendous amount of information.”

    The real problem being, of course, that there is no check on the system once it’s in place and based on its history only a fool would trust the FBI as far as you can throw Louis Freeh. Rep. Bob Barr (R-Georgia), who has led the fight against other government monitoring systems such as Echelon, summed up the problem with Carnivore: “Once the software is applied to the ISP, there’s no check on the system. If there’s one word I would use to describe this, it would be ‘frightening.'”

    The Wall Street Journal tracked down an FBI flak, Marcus Thomas, to whine that “This is just a very specialized sniffer” and to point out that there are criminal and civil penalties that prohibit the FBI from conducting unauthorized wiretap and that evidence gleaned from such a wiretap would be inadmissible in court. Apparently Thomas thinks that Americans are stupid with a capital “S.”

    Sure the evidence is inadmissible in court, but that doesn’t prevent the FBI from developing criminal cases based on information they find in an unauthorized wiretap and simply forgetting to mention the origin of the original information. Besides, the FBI has in the past managed to put inadmissible evidence to very good use. Much of the information that the FBI collected on civil rights groups was clearly inadmissible in court, but agents still used it to try to destroy people’s reputations and lives.

    Fortunately, the FBI hasn’t yet succeeded in banning strong cryptography so anyone who wants to communicate securely over the Internet can still do so by using a program such as Pretty Good Privacy.

    Users concerned about eavesdropping by the Feds should treat the FBI as network damage and route around it.


‘Carnivore’ Eats Your Privacy. Wired News, July 11, 2000.

FBI’s system to covertly search e-mail raises privacy, legal issues. The Wall Street Journal, July 11, 2000.

Rapists, Thieves and Logical Fallacies

A recent study of 40 convicted rapists in the Virginia Prison system is yielding calls to expand the collection of DNA samples from convicted criminals to include those convicted of property crimes such as burglary. Unfortunately, the call for increased DNA collections is based largely on a logical fallacy.

The study examined rapists in Virginia who were convicted based in part on samples of DNA that had been taken from previous crimes. In 60% of the cases, the DNA sample had been collected following a previous conviction for a sexual assault, but in 40% of the cases the DNA had been collected following a conviction for a property crime such as burglary. Although the study has a relatively small sample with only 40 men, it agrees with other studies that find a large percentage of rapists tend to commit other sorts of crimes before committing rape. A study of British rapists, for example, found that more than 75% of them had committed property crimes before committing rape, with the obvious implication being that a significant number of rapes are committed by opportunistic burglars.

On the one hand these studies and others effectively debunk the radical feminist claim that rape is simply an extreme expression of normal male sexuality, and that all men, therefore, are potential rapists capable of sexual violence. In fact, as the Virginia and the UK studies demonstrate, rapists tend to come from a hard core group of career criminals who likely commit numerous acts of crime before moving on to rape. The typical rapist is very different from the average man on the street, and the claim that all men are potential rapists is nothing but a myth.

On the other hand, does this study really mean that it makes sense to take DNA samples from burglars and others convicted of property crimes. No, not unless the rules of logic have suddenly been overturned. Those arguing in favor of widespread DNA collection from burglars are guilty of a logical fallacy known as the undistributed middle. Just because all geese are birds, it doesn’t logically follow that all birds are geese. Similarly, just because a large percentage of rapists are also thieves, it does not follow that a large percentage of thieves are also rapists.

In fact a cursory glance at recent crime statistics shows the inherent problems with trying to catch rapists by DNA testing of thieves. For 1998, the last year for which statistics are available, the Bureau of Justice Statistics’ surveys estimates there were 4.1 million attempted or completed burglaries and 51,000 attempted or completed rapes and sexual assaults. These figures include rapes and sexual assaults not reported to police, but lets assume that half of rape victims not only don’t report rapes to police but also are unwilling to tell an anonymous survey of their rape. If there are 100,000 rapes each year, then there are about 41 times as many burglaries as rapes. Finally, even figuring in the issue of the same person committing multiple burglaries and/or multiple rapes, the population of thieves who are not rapists is still 8 or 9 times larger than the population of thieves who are also rapists, even if we assume that all rapists are thieves.

From a purely financial perspective, taking DNA samples, processing them at a laboratory, and then maintaining them in a computer database is a very expensive proposition to collect the minority of burglars who go on to commit rape; money that could probably be better used on more traditional methods of crime prevention.

Moreover, there’s an additional problem that relates to issues of statistical probability. Everyone’s familiar with the claims that if two random DNA samples are tested and they appear to be identical, the odds that they are not is astronomically high. The problem is that this is only accurate so long as investigators are comparing two random pieces of DNA. If police compare a DNA sample of semen following a rape with the DNA of the chief suspect who lives in the neighborhood and can’t account for his actions at the time of the rape, that is a statistically sound use of DNA. But when police start taking that DNA sample and comparing it to a DNA database of millions of individuals (and if DNA is taken from all people convicted of felony property crimes, that will quickly become a very large database), the probability that a match is a false positive starts to increase relatively rapidly.

A couple of features of DNA collection and crime patterns make such a false positive even more likely. In order to save money on DNA samples, different states actually do very different DNA tests. Rather than analyze the whole string of DNA, such tests look at a number of well-known markers, and to save money further, many states only look at five or six of these markers rather than seven or eight. Of course, the fewer number of marks examined, the higher the risk of a false positive.

Similarly, the astronomical odds assume an even distribution of genes, but this is unlikely to be true. Crime patterns in the United States tend to be disproportionately skewed against African Americans — i.e. a burglar is far more likely to be black than white in proportion to the overall racial makeup of the United States. There are numerous genetic differences that occur in African Americans that don’t occur in Caucasians. We know, for example, that the genes for sickle cell anemia occur almost exclusively in African Americans. Unfortunately this further raises the risk among African Americans that there might be false positives, since the astronomical odds assume that the genes of whites and blacks are evenly distributed in the database, even though they we know this is not the case.

These sorts of problems recently culminated in a false positive DNA match in Great Britain which has already gone a long way to creating a huge national database of DNA on most individuals arrested and convicted of crimes (fortunately for him, the man in question had an airtight alibi — he was in jail at the time on another charge!)

Collecting DNA from everyone convicted of property crimes is likely to be an extremely expensive proposition that will only marginally increase the ability of police to catch rapists, while at the same time dramatically increasing the risk of a false allegation and conviction for rape. Moreover, once it becomes general knowledge that DNA databases don’t really do much to improve the arrest rate for rape, as in Europe the push will occur to expand such testing to everyone ever arrested (a proposition for which police in New York and elsewhere are already clamoring for) or for DNA testing of the general population, which European nations have also started to adopt although it generally costs a lot of money and rarely results in an any arrests much less convictions.

Rather than take DNA from burglars, a better bet might be to make sure people convicted of serious sexual assault spend more time in jail. Much more frightening than the fact that 40% of rapists in Virginia had previously been convicted of property crimes is that 60% of them had been convicted of a previous sexual assault. Given limited funds, reducing recidivism among those convicted of rape or sexual assault would seem a better avenue to reduce rape incidence than randomly testing the DNA of millions of petty criminals.