Category: Uncategorized

To the Editor of the New York Times:

I beg to differ with Donald G. McNeil’s article, “Drug companies focus on the poor” (N.Y. Times June 25, 2019). McNeil claims that the pharmaceutical industry has lowered prices and is now helping poor countries buy needed medications. Two examples (out of thousands) illustrate the opposite. In 2018, U.S. officials threatened negative aid and trade consequences for Ecuador if the country introduced a resolution to the World Health Assembly to encourage breast-feeding; behind the scenes, the infant formula industry was lobbying the U.S. government to defeat any proposal that might threaten their profitable bottle-feeding products. In 2014, U.S. pharmaceutical companies and pro-business groups created the “astroturf campaign,” a fake grassroots movement to undermine South Africa’s efforts to lower drug prices through an amendment of its intellectual property law.

By using their power and influence to keep the costs of medicines high, and by systematically hiding their profits in overseas tax havens, pharmaceutical companies put poor people’s health at risk and deprive governments of billions of dollars in taxes that could be used to invest in healthcare. 

Forced Pregnancy, Eugenics, and Abortion

In these days of white supremacists talking about “the great replacement” – their fear that the white “races” will be overtaken by people of color – it is good of Clarence Thomas* to remind us of the ugly history of eugenics. Described misleadingly as the science of improving human populations by controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of desirable heritable characteristics, eugenics became the policy of forced sterilization, segregation or miscegenation in 32 states. The eugenics movement claimed it was dedicated to ameliorating the human race; but, impatient with the slow pace of voluntary compliance, it turned to compulsory measures to achieve its true aims — a whitening of the gene pool and the elimination of disabilities, many of which were wrongly thought to be inherited. No one should forget the Nazi use of eugenic arguments to justify sterilizations, the killing of “defective” children and adults and the mass murder of “undesirable” people. But to reject birth control today because Margaret Sanger allied with the eugenics movement in the early history of the family planning movement is tantamount to rejecting the science of genetics today based on the aberrant history of eugenics.

Eugenical policy makers mandated forced sterilization, segregation or miscegenation to achieve their aims. Involuntary sterilization, as administered under eugenical sterilization laws, is now recognized as a violation of human rights. It bears no relation to voluntary abortion. The voluntary termination of pregnancy by medical or surgical methods is a decision taken by a woman, in consultation with her physician, for a range of reasons extending from fetal abnormality and endangerment of the woman’s life or health to economic or social determinations. The denial of abortion, however, amounts to state enforced compulsory childbirth and is comparable to coerced sterilization. Forced pregnancy contradicts reproductive freedom and sexual autonomy; it is a condition suffered exclusively by women; and it is a crime against humanity in international law, spelled out in the Rome Statute. The crime is rooted in longstanding ideals of autonomy and equality and the idea that reproductive choice is a basic human right. To endorse forced pregnancy by excluding rape and incest as exemptions in a vulgar attempt to get the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v Wade is an egregious violation of international human rights law and women’s human rights.

Forcing a woman to continue an unwanted pregnancy is reproductive coercion, defined as behavior that interferes with the autonomous decision-making of a woman with regard to reproductive health; coercion includes the threat of consequences for noncompliance with a demand, in this case punishment under the law. In El Salvador, the ban on abortion is total, imposing harsh criminal penalties on both women and physicians. Under current Salvadoran law, anyone who performs an abortion with the woman’s consent, or a woman who self-induces or consents to someone else inducing her abortion, or who is suspected of having had an abortion after seeking medical attention for serious pregnancy complications, can be imprisoned for up to eight years. In reality, most women end up being prosecuted and sentenced for aggravated homicide, which is punishable by up to 30 years in prison. Abortion bans that mandate punishment of the woman or of the physicians who perform the abortion are contrary to international law.

Clarence Thomas correctly points out that more African-American than white women request abortion, attributing the differential to racism. He is right, for the wrong reasons. Racism today is embedded, not in eugenical social engineering, but in the inexcusably higher rates of black than white maternal and infant mortality, the injustice of black/white wealth and income differences, in the injustice of different rates of homelessness and home ownership, in the unfairness of African-American families’ inability to find and afford nutritious food, and in the inequity of contrasting black/white unemployment rates. Black women demand reproductive justice—the right to bear children and raise them with dignity in safe, healthy, and supportive environments; it is the inability to do so that leads so many to terminate an unwanted pregnancy.

Justice Thomas’s arguments about genetic manipulation are wrongly directed at abortion and better aimed at the fertility industry, which uses an ever-wider variety of techniques to create pregnancies tailored to the wishes of those who will raise the children. One figure gives some idea of how large this industry has become: the global market for invitro fertilization (IVF) was valued at $16.68 billion in 2018. Since the world’s first baby was conceived invitro in 1978, more than 8 million babies have been born with this technique. It is unimaginable that we would return to the days when there was no hope for infertile women and men. To justify the denial of the possibility of family on the grounds of social engineering is inconceivable

* Justice Thomas’s concurring opinion in the case of Box v. Planned Parenthood of Indiana and Kentucky, Inc. can be read at

© Meredeth Turshen 5 June 2019


Out of Time, Out of Place: Primitivism and African Art

This article debates the proposition that artistic production mirrors humanity’s maturation from primitive superstition to scientific rationality. This effort sits at the intersection of demography, political economy and aesthetics. According to traditional demographic theory, primitive peoples are caught in a poverty trap of high birth rates, a condition inimical to industrialization, well-planned urbanization, universal education, women’s emancipation and cultural production. The analysis focuses on three dynamics: the demographic effects of mass migration on creativity: the trajectories of declining populations and their places in cultural hierarchies; and slavery and colonialism’s reduction to penury of skilled artists in pre-industrial societies. The method interrogates self-reinforcing trends of the canons of demography, political economy and aesthetics and the resulting concurrence on the path of progress, which assumes that art is a reflection of liberal historical advancement. The overarching argument of the article is that by setting the criteria and suppressing alternative accounts of the history of African art, these canons narrow and misrepresent our global cultural legacy. Background: sub-Saharan African art is classified as “primitive” according to the canons of art history, demography and political economy. This label is problematic because it conveys faulty demographic assumptions about sub-Saharan Africa and reflects the ways in which theories of human progress reinforce analyses underlying the designation of primitive. The proposition advanced is that these canons narrow, suppress alternative accounts of the history of African art, and misrepresent our global cultural legacy.
Journal of Arts & Humanities Volume 06, Issue 09, 2017, 16-22; DOI:


Labor force futures
30 June 2017
© Meredeth Turshen

Over the past decade technology has disrupted (and in some cases, dismantled) high-paying jobs that required a college degree: the publishing, music, retail and service industries have all seen automation-related cuts in their workforce. Automation is replacing some jobs of college-educated workers in banks, financial firms, law offices and pharmacies. Sportswriters and business journalists find themselves outsmarted by machine-generated stories: a company called Narrative Science can feed data into a computer and print out a story in minutes.
According to the New York Times (“New collar jobs are giving people with tech skills but no degree a chance at better pay”, June 29, 2017), programs now hire adults without college education for middle level jobs in technology. All of the people interviewed for the Times article were under age 35. What does the future hold for adults aged 45 to 55 looking for a job? (This is one of the groups hardest hit by the opioid epidemic.)
Boston Consulting Group predicts that by 2025 up to one-quarter of jobs will be replaced by either smart software or robots, while a study from Oxford University suggests that 35% of existing UK jobs are at risk of automation in the next 20 years.
What does this trend mean for the future of college education? (The Times article says one-third of US adults hold a four-year college degree.) There are two aspects to this question: one, as states withdraw funding from public colleges and the costs of tuition rise, what happens when automation replaces the kind of job that enabled high-school graduates to work their way through college? The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (August 18, 2016, says the decline in state funding of higher education has reached over 50% in Arizona and Illinois and over 30% in AL, ID, KY, LA, NH, NM, PA and SC).
The second aspect is, what kinds of work are college graduates going to find in the job market that will enable them to pay off student loans and establish independent lives? One possibility is work that has a direct impact on another human being; but only the current limits of robotics leave this opening. Machines may not yet do jobs that depend on personal interaction, but the Japanese are already experimenting with robots that care for the emotional as well as physical needs of the elderly in nursing homes (November 20, 2016 Work that combines high levels of dexterity with sophisticated decision making are being accomplished by systems like Johnson & Johnson’s Sedasys, already FDA approved, which can automate delivery of low-level anesthesia in colonoscopies at a fraction of the cost of an anesthesiologist. Jobs that require an ability to persuade, negotiate and think creatively may not be way off for the most advanced software; automation is no longer about replacing repetitive work that involved very little real-time decision making.
As a university professor, I worry about my students, many of whom work full-time jobs to pay tuition; they are counting on their degrees to provide passports to professional careers. Automation debases the college degree. Politicians who are voting to cut funding for public education, who disrespect the teaching profession, who ridicule the arts and humanities as irrelevant, are opting for a soul-less mechanical society of people who will be unable to distinguish fascism from freedom.

Small group show @ hob’art


Meredeth Turshen, Coloratura, 2016 


Thursday, September 8 – Sunday, October 2, 2016

hob’art gallery, 720 Monroe Street, Hoboken, NJ

Reception: Saturday, September 10, 6-8pm

Gallery talk: Sunday, September 18, 3:30pm

The artists: Ann Kinney, Janet Kolstein, Meredeth Turshen

and Miriam Untoria

Congo Kitoko: Beauty and Violence

Congo Kitoko: Beauty and Violence
© Meredeth Turshen 3/21/2016

Kiripi Katembo, Subir (2011).
Kiripi Katembo_pic

In photographs and films, Kiripi Katembo documented the daily life of the inhabitants of Kinshasa and the instability of the political and economic situation in Congo. Some of his photographs were on view in the exuberant exhibition of Congolese art, Beauté Congo: Congo Kitoko, 1926–2015, at Fondation Cartier in Paris, 11 July – 15 November 2015. Katembo said of his work that photography provided

‘a way of seeing beyond reflection as it opens up a poetic window on another world, the world in which I live. I want each image to tell of the children born here who have to grow up surrounded by pools of water, and of the families who survive while others leave to live in exile. To me, this is one way of campaigning for a healthier environment and to denounce through images what Kinshasa’s inhabitants see as fate.’

Subir, the title of Katembo’s photograph above, means to endure, to suffer, to undergo or go through. Katembo captures people’s struggles against structural violence in the photographs he takes of reflections in puddles on the streets of Kinshasa (and displays upside down for greater effect). Silent killers like hunger, thirst, disease and poverty are the invisible manifestations of structural violence.

Katembo himself succumbed to the silent violence of cerebral malaria at age 36, within a month of the opening of the prestigious exhibition in Paris. Malarial mosquitoes breed in pools of water on streets with no drainage, in slums with no sewerage systems. Malaria is among the top ten killers in Congo, a silent epidemic that foreshortens the lives of tens of thousands every year.