The forgotten princess

Today I read a shocking story in the New York Times about Sheikha Latifa, a 32-year-old Emirati princess who has simply disappeared after trying, and almost succeeding, to flee. A previous attempt to escape, when she was just a teenager, had led to three years in solitary confinement, so this time, as she set sail with a friend across the Indian ocean she knew the risks were high. She had almost reached India when her father’s henchmen apprehended her and there has been little news of her since. (A detailed account of her flight is currently on Wikipedia.)

800px-Dubai_marina_WikipediaSheikha Latifa’s story gives just a tiny glimpse of the injustices that must be taking place across the UAE–a country hardly renowned for its record on human rights. I can’t pretend to be familiar with the vastly complex politics of the country, but I do know that Dubai is a glittering destination for tourists, drawn by promises of beaches (aren’t they artificial?) and lavish shopping  malls.

Latifa’s story may be a little like Jamal Khashoggi’s, a single tale whose horror captures our imaginations out of millions of other terrible injustices. When I watched her Youtube goodbye video (to be published only if something terrible happened), I was struck by her normality. She seemed totally sympathetic, and yes, just like me.

What’s additionally shocking here is that Mary Robinson, former president of Ireland and High Commissioner for Human Rights at the UN somehow managed to get bamboozled (hoodwinked?) into visiting the family, being photographed with Latifa and bolstering their story. In the pics, Latifa’s face looks puffy, her eyes glazed. Robinson says that she was clearly a “troubled young woman.” What on earth does that mean? And why hadn’t Robinson investigated further before her visit? Robinson is an activist for women’s rights, and her participation in this photo-op granted approval to the Emirati royal family’s account. For someone in her position, it is a terrible gaffe.

The New York Times piece ends on a sinister note. Several of the people the journalist had been talking to became fearful and abruptly stopped responding to messages. The implication is that Latifa may now be dead. I guess that won’t stop holidaymakers from enjoying Dubai’s beaches, but I hope some people will watch Latifa’s eloquent and entirely credible testimony and think about the powers that worked against her.



Infertility injustices

Who should have access to infertility treatment? It’s an interesting question at a time when healthcare systems, even those in wealthy countries, are crumbling under the pressures of reduced finances and ageing populations. In this environment fertility treatments can seem like a luxurious add-on, distinct and separate from life-saving medicine.

About two years ago I was considering fertility treatment but found it inaccessible for rather different reasons. My partner has cancer so we assumed we’d be unable to conceive naturally, and yet when I made inquiries at a top clinic in Brussels I was told we probably wouldn’t be able to receive IUI or IVF. The reason was not financial (in fact, the Belgian public insurance system covers up to 6 cycles of IVF and attendant therapies) but ethical. The clinic deemed it inappropriate for someone with cancer to have a child–even if their partner wants one. Bizarrely, had I been single, the situation would have been different; having a child with donor sperm would have been entirely okay.


I’m blurring things a bit because the clinic didn’t absolutely say no. Over the phone, a nice woman told me we’d have to go through counselling and have an opportunity to make our case, meeting several doctors who would assess us psychologically and deduce whether we were in a position to be parents. We’d also have to provide my partner’s medical records and his oncologist’s prognosis of how long he’d live. “It’s very harsh,” she said. “But having a child with IVF is difficult and having cancer is also difficult, so we think both are too much.”

It was the first time I’d come up against a medical decision with which I absolutely disagreed. Who were these anonymous doctors to tell my boyfriend and me whether or not we were fit to have a child? And how dare they make that decision on our behalf? We’d never received a set prognosis from my partner’s current oncologist–and all the predictions we’ve had in the past were inaccurate. Some people with his type of cancer have survived for 6 months, others for 30 years. Getting his doctor to put a figure on paper seemed unhelpful and stressful.

Luckily this was the opinion of just one clinic, albeit the largest and best-publicised in Brussels (it’s popular among international fertility patients and invests heavily in English-language marketing materials). We found another in Leuven that was willing and able to work with us. Its staff were very friendly and kind, but we hit another roadblock, this time in the form of EU law. We’d lived in the US when my partner had his first cancer treatments. It turns out that New York law differs from that in Europe, and tests for conditions like HIV and Hep C only if the sample is intended for a third party.

Because the sample was for my partner’s use, and mine, it wasn’t tested. As a result, it was illegal for us to ship it to Europe. The fertility specialist in Leuven was sympathetic but crystal clear. That was that.


Since then, and to our huge surprise, we’ve succeeded in conceiving naturally, and a baby’s on the way. All of this made me think though. Fertility treatment isn’t just about money although money plays a big and questionable role in the industry. It also raises so many ethical issues. Should cancer patients be allowed to have kids? (I think so.) Should such treatment be funded from the public purse? (I don’t know.) When is it appropriate for doctors’ views to over-ride those of the patients they treat? (A tricky one.)

What do you think?

How much time do you waste online?

The real problem is darting from task to task, tool to tool, without completing anything.

If someone told you that you spent 10 hours per day on social media you might feel rather surprised. But those are the figures cited in “The Distracted Mind,” a new book by Adam Gazzaley and Larry D. Rosen, published by MIT Press. College students described as “low smartphone users” spent 3 hours per day on their phones, while those designated “heavy smartphone users” spent as many as 10 hours per day on their phones–figures that are almost incredible.

How do they (/we) find time to do anything else? The answer is that we multitask, switching frenetically from one activity to another, checking email and IMs in between. As Gazzaley and Rosen point out, this creates feelings of anxiety, depression and stress. In short, using social media and online technology is not very good for you.

Image credit: MIT Press,

Image credit: MIT Press,

‘The Distracted Mind” has attracted a lot of attention in the US and it’s easy to see why. Social media and a constant rotation of new technologies have been ubiquitous for a few years now, but without a developing sense that we know how to manage them. When I worked in an office, instant replies to email were de rigeur (a habit G and D show truly prevents work from getting done). Often these days, when I check my phone, I have a queasy, slippery sensation in my mind, perhaps the equivalent of how your stomach might feel after drinking a McDonald’s chocolate milkshake. (They used to be my favourite.) Slightly unpleasant, enough to suggest that looking at my phone 8 or 9 times an hour probably isn’t very healthy, but not bad enough to stop me from doing again. This book articulates what the source of that sensation might be and includes findings from multiple psychological experiments on the subject.

I’m keen to get to the “solutions” chapter but already I’ve begun to modify my tech use and am working on curtailing my obsessive phone-scanning habit. There is perhaps an irony in writing about this online, but I don’t think the authors will argue for total abstention from tech-driven activities; just a more controlled and thoughtful approach.

I’ll keep you posted!