Thursday, June 15, 2006
Ailing Americans seek Chinese organs
There are 90,000 people waiting for organs in the United States. Many of them will die before they ever get close to a transplant. Eric DeLeon of San Mateo, California, did not want to be one of them.
Eric was diagnosed with liver cancer last year. Because he had nine tumors, he was taken off the U.S. transplant list. Doctors considered him a poor candidate for survival.
"I just knew that cancer was going to grow and spread throughout my body and I thought I would be another statistic," Eric told me recently.
So Eric and his wife Lori searched the Internet to check out other transplant options. He found a transplant service in China that promised to find him a healthy liver in a matter of weeks. Eric mortgaged his home and paid $110,000 for a new liver. Two weeks later, he arrived in Shanghai. A couple weeks after that, he had his new liver.
Eric is not alone in looking to China for a new organ. We're told that tens of thousands of foreigners are paying for transplant surgery in China. The problem is those organs may be cut from an executed death row prisoner without consent. That's not all. Some organs are said to have been removed before the prisoner took his last breath in order to keep the organs as fresh as possible.
"I can still hear the sounds of those people shouting when they're having their organs harvested while they are still alive," one former prisoner told me.
You're probably asking yourself by now: How is this allowed to happen?
Well, China executes more prisoners than all other nations combined. More than 4,700 men and women were executed in the last two years, according to Amnesty International. People there can be executed even for white collar crimes like tax fraud, embezzlement and bribery.
The harvesting method is cold and calculating: A single shot to the head if chest organs are needed; a shot to the body if the brain or eyes are needed. Recently, China started using "death vans" where lethal injection is administered on the road so all of the organs can be harvested.
Congressman Chris Smith, a New Jersey Republican, has written a letter to the President of China calling on him to put an end to this practice.
"That smacks of Nazism, when people were reduced to mere commodities that were wanted only for the organs they could provide," Smith told me.
China's deputy health minister acknowledges the organs are harvested from prisoners. But he says they are only harvested from those who give consent.
What constitutes consent? In the United States, death row prisoners are not allowed to donate organs because the government believes they can't freely give consent behind bars.
New York transplant surgeon Thomas Diflo calls what's happening in China a gross violation of human rights. He is refusing to treat people who have had surgery in China. He remembers the first time he heard about this from a patient. "I said, 'Where did you get your organ?' And she said, 'I got it from an executed prisoner.'"
The Chinese government refused our request for an interview, but issued a statement: "The reports about China's random transplant of organs from executed criminals are untrue and a malicious slander against [the] Chinese Judiciary System. ... In China, it is very prudent to use organs from death penalty criminals."
The government promises to change its transplant law July 1 by banning the sale of organs and limiting organ transplants. Critics doubt it will change much of anything for Chinese prisoners.
Wednesday, June 14, 2006
Might be no way out of this traffic jam
Driving through the relentless crush of Los Angeles traffic, it hits me like a bolt from the blue: There may be no way out of this. Traffic, I mean. Congestion. The slow smothering of large cities coast-to-coast by rising oceans of commuters.
I live in the Washington, D.C., area, so the idea of a 10-mile trip taking an hour is not foreign, but after a look at what California is facing, I am left wondering about the future.
Traffic experts say, basically, everything we have done to ease traffic problems has largely failed.
We've added lanes to busy highways, only to find that businesses and neighborhoods expand right alongside them, devouring the new capacity.
We've added carpool lanes to encourage conservation, only to find that the added speed of these lanes lets people move further from the city center, promoting sprawl.
We've talked about adding more public transit, but the amount required to make a substantial difference is enormous. In Los Angeles, 48 million trips are made every day, but less than one million of them are on public transit.
The Southern California Association of Governments has a three-pronged plan to address traffic congestion:
1. Push to build more communities with jobs, homes, shopping and recreation all within a relatively small area.
2. Make businesses and individuals who add to congestion pay for it directly through more toll roads, development fees, that sort of thing.
3. Educate drivers about their own bad habits. The association says 50 percent of the region's congestion could be eliminated if drivers just learned to avoid accidents, breakdowns, and other bad maneuvers that create traffic jams.
Can all this work? Maybe. But it's going to require basic changes in how we live, changes that so far we have not warmed to despite $3 gallons of gasoline and traffic delays that are, on average, eating 47 hours of an urban commuter's life every year.
The question is: Are we ready, willing, or even able to make enough changes to make a difference?
Tuesday, June 13, 2006
The other side of high-speed police chases
We've all seen police chases on television. They're fast, and lots of folks would tell you they're fun to watch. But the fun ends when you meet a family that's been affected by a police chase in the worst of ways.
The Priano family of Chico, California, lost their only daughter, a 15-year-old girl they called "the sparkplug of the family," during a police chase four years ago. I spent time with them recently at their home to see how that moment changed their lives.
Here's the background: 15-year-old Kristia Priano was on the way to a basketball game at her school. She was in the family van with her parents and her brother.
Another 15-year-old girl had just stolen her mother's car across town and was out for a joyride. Police pursued her in a slow-speed chase. But for some reason, the girl suddenly floored it and smashed into the Priano's van at an intersection.
Here's what Kristie's mom, Candy Priano, told me she remembers about the moment right after the accident: "She always was so talkative. I mean, if she had been alright, I know she would have said something. So, in my heart of hearts I knew that something was really bad."
Kristie went into a coma and died one week later. And that other girl, the driver on the joyride, well, she left the accident scene uninjured.
Here's the question the Priano's have been asking for 4 years: If the suspect in this case was not a murderer, not even a dangerous felon, why were police chasing her? She was a high school student who took the family car out for a joyride. Does that warrant a police chase?
"Yes, because it fits the policy, because it's more than just a vehicle infraction," says Chico Police Chief Bruce Hagerty, who wasn't with the department at the time of the accident. "The trouble with pursuits is there is always a possibility that even if the officers do everything 100 percent the way they are trained to do that the pursuit will still end in a tragedy."
Hundreds of innocent people like Kristie Priano die each year as a result of police chases. You'd think law enforcement would have found a safer means to snare a suspect. But some experts we spoke with say there are a lot of police departments out there that will "chase until the wheels fall off."
The Priano's have been working for four years to pass "Kristie's Law" in California. It would restrict police chases to violent felons posing an immediate threat and make it a felony to flee from police. The bill has yet to pass.
Kristie's mom told me something her daughter said to her a few days before she died. "Oh, if I were to die, I'd be okay, because I know in that instant I would be with Jesus," she says Kristy told her.
Candy's reply: "Oh, well, Jesus isn't gonna have you die, because he knows I couldn't live without you."
It was sweet then, but haunting now.
Where should "360°" go next?
So we are back on the road. Tonight and tomorrow night, we will broadcast from Los Angeles. Then we'll take the show to San Francisco and Seattle for broadcasts on Thursday and Friday.
There's a lot of news to cover tonight -- President Bush visiting Iraq, Karl Rove breathing a bit easier, Tropical Storm Alberto moving through Florida. We also have a number of interesting stories out of California, including the debate over a national park that one Republican Congressman wants to use as a hunting ground for disabled vets.
We are planning some other trips for "360°" this summer and have been discussing a handful of possible destinations. I'd be interested in hearing any suggestions from you about places you think we should go. Any ideas?
On another note, I really appreciate all the e-mails and letters I've received from those of you who've read my book
. I've done a number of book signings across the country in recent days and the response has been really amazing. Last week, the book went to number one on The New York Times bestseller list, which was remarkable, and I just wanted to say thank you.
Poll: Slight bounce in U.S. opinion on Iraq
There were two dramatic events in Iraq in recent weeks. First came allegations that U.S. marines may have killed innocent Iraqi civilians in Haditha. Then came the elimination of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, leader of al Qaeda in Iraq.
So how do Americans think things are going for the United States in Iraq? A little better than three months ago. In March, 38 percent thought things were going well. Now, 43 percent feel that way. But most Americans, 54 percent, continue to believe the war is not going well.
The Haditha allegations were particularly troubling. "If these allegations are true," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat, "The incidents dishonor the uniform and bring great pressure to bear on our mission in Iraq."
The public is inclined to believe that U.S. troops have crossed the line at times. Fifty-seven percent of Americans think it's likely that U.S. troops have committed war crimes in Iraq, compared with 37 percent who think it's not likely.
Some observers see recent developments in Iraq as a strong argument for the U.S. to begin withdrawing its forces. How does the public read the evidence? In March, most Americans wanted U.S. forces to withdraw from Iraq within the next year.
Now, the pressure to withdraw has diminished, at least a bit. Forty-seven percent favor withdrawal within a year, while 48 percent believe U.S. forces should stay as long as necessary.
Despite recent events, Americans have not changed their minds as to whether the United States should have invaded Iraq in the first place.
Two months ago, 55 percent of Americans said it was a mistake for the U.S. to send troops to Iraq. How many feel that way now? Fifty-five percent.
Americans certainly see the elimination of Zarqawi as a positive development. But did it turn around opinion of the war in Iraq? No.
Monday, June 12, 2006
Taking a bullet for the politicians
Security contractors in Iraq are a private bunch. They don't like media attention and they don't open their doors to many outsiders. But after a lot of talking and explaining, we were recently able to get an inside look at some security contractors in Iraq.
There are roughly 25,000 security contractors in the country. They spend much of their time providing security for the convoys that bring in raw materials and daily necessities for military bases around the country.
The 130,000 troops in Iraq need places to eat, to land aircraft and helicopters, and to sleep. Most of the materials for these activities need to be brought into Iraq. Supply convoys often drive up from Kuwait, through areas that are very hostile to the United States, especially as the convoys near Baghdad. The contractors get the job of maintaining security for on these journeys.
In the past, the army would have provided its own supplies along with the security for them. No longer.
The use of private contractors is part of a gradual trend that has been developing over the past 30 or 40 years. You could even argue this trend has been developing over the past 100 or 150 years. You have always had private contractors who have gone into battle, whether to maintain suits of armor or feed horses. But in Iraq, this is taking place on a much grander scale.
The contractors also provide security for high-level government officers in Iraq, an incredibly violent place now. If you are associated with the Iraqi or American governments, then you are a target. Some of best-qualified people to defend high-level officials are the security contractors, many of whom once served in the American, South African or Australian special forces.
The U.S. government won't say how much has been spent on private security contractors, but industry experts estimate the figure is in the tens of billions of dollars.
What's in it for the contractors? In a word, money. Security in Iraq is a dangerous job and it pays well. A contractor with a good level of skill can make $650 per day, perhaps more if they have a top flight job. This kind of money can provide a good standard of living for their families, perhaps puting their kids into a better school or moving them into a better house. And the contractors have insurance to make sure their families will be taken care of in the event they are killed.
The use of so many private contractors in Iraq has drawn fire from critics both here and abroad. The contractors justify their presence by explaining that it would be very consumptive of men and materials if the military had to do everything the contractors now do. You would probably see troop levels such that a conscription or draft would be required.
The use of more soldiers would expose more soldiers to death and more politicians to political heat. The way the contractors in Iraq look at it is that there is an economic and political cost equation. They are keeping the administration from paying a price for a larger number of soldier deaths or the need for a larger number of troops.
That's their take. What's yours?