865 STERILISATION OF MINORS
Round the World
Enthusiasm for population control has subsided to some here now that the U.S. is close to zero population growth (in sharp contrast to what is happening in many regions to the south of us). But control which extended, on one or two occasions, to the sterilisation of non-handicapped girls at an age too young to give informed consent, has never been generally condoned, and a public outcry has put a stop to such practice. The federal government has refused to finance the sterilisation of anyone under 21 or anyone, at any age, who is incapable of giving legally valid informed consent. Yet in some States there are, on the statute books, laws allowing, indeed mandating, the sterilisation of mental defectives living in institutions, though it would be hard to find a physician or a hospital ready to carry out such an operation, for in the present climate of opinion they would risk being sued. It is a good thing that we have institutions which can cope with the seriously disturbed or disabled mental patient. But the pressure on such State institutions is extreme and there are all the usual difficulties of providing care when staff are scarce and facilities inadequate. If the mentally handicapped are cared for at home, on the other hand, intolerable strains are put on the parents and the rest of the family, quite apart from the financial burden. The difficulties multiply as the child grows up, especially if it is a girl. The courts are now being faced with the difficult case of three seriously mentally defective blind girls. Everyone involved believes that sterilisation is urgently desirable on personal, medical, social, economic, and ethical grounds. The only obstacle is the legal one. It is evident that sterilisation is needed before the girls reach the age of 21, but it is equally clear that the girls themselves will never be able to give legally valid informed consent. Who can? The parents wish the girls to be sterilised and have turned to the courts for assistance, but so far to no effect. The Administration, having been so successful in saying what may not be done, has in four years proved totally incapable of saying what may be done. Even if the courts did agree that sterilisation could, and should, be allowed with the consent of the parents and the courts, it would still be necessary to find a physician and a hospital willing to carry out the operation. For the courts could not protect doctor or,hospital from being sued, and in some States the judges themselves have been sued, successfully, for letting minors be sterilised, even with the consent of the parents. So something will have to be done to clarify the law, and the sooner it happens the better. Perhaps the civil libertarian lawyers should get down to this problem. extent
United States RETIREMENT
It seems it was Otto von Bismarck who set up 65 years as the normal age of retirement, and some half a century later, when this country got round to setting up the social-security system, it became the accepted (and in many instances the mandatory) age of retirement. In Bismarck’s time only a minority of those insured enjoyed any long period drawing their retirement pensions, but at least it was a pension. The U.S. has never quite made up its mind what social security was meant to be-a pension or a welfare scheme. The original intention was to supplement other funds available to the retired rather than to provide total subsistence, yet this is the function it came to fulfil for a great many people. If it provided a real pension it should, most people thought, be a contributory scheme, and this is what it eventually became, funded by taxes on employers and employees. Times have changed, and the number and proportion of the aged in the population have increased, while inflation has eroded savings. Congress has increased the payments to be made to those on social security, and so the total on which annual deductions are calculated and the scale of payments have greatly increased. There is no hiding the fact that the social security withholding is a tax and a particularly retrogressive one, and also a singularly ineffective one. The socialsecurity system, with its self-financing mechanisms, is running out of money; more is, or soon will be, paid out than is being taken in. With the changing age-structure of the population a vastly increased burden will be laid on the shrinking number of the young in order to support the growing number of the old-a trend accentuated by the high level of unemployment which reduces the contributions. So the Administration and Congress will have to do some new thinking; the President’s intention is to use revenue from general taxation to shore up the social-security budget. But Congress is on the whole against the use of tax revenues for these purposes, and wants to load the costs onto the employers. One move that will do something, if only a little, to ease matters is to postpone the age of retirement, at least of mandatory retirement, from 65 to 70 years. Bills to this effect have sailed through both Houses of Congress with large majorities, and so far relatively little opposition, though this is starting to build up. This is natural in a period of high unemployment, particularly among certain minority groups and the young. Moreover, the proposal runs counter to a movement calling for the option of earlier retirement. Some of the supporters of this option see themselves taking part-time employment, thus leaving themselves time to seek companionship or find some new interest. However, the right to work part-time is restricted by the loss of social-security benefits if more than a small sum is earned each year. Many organisations find that the bulk of their employees prefer to retire outright before the age of 65, perhaps with some financial inducement to do so. There is no denying that the measure to raise the retirement age has been rather hastily passed by Congress, but some of the opposition has been trumped up. Pension experts deny that 11 would adversely affect pension schemes, since those staying on at work would continue to contribute and would be withdrawing funds for a shorter period. It is not suggested that Medicare measures would be affected; the scheme would continue to cover the same people over 65. Many people will feel grateful that they are to be offered a choice, though the problems of getting rid of those who should retire but won’t will press upon many institutions and personnel managers. The basIc problem-the provision of social security in old ageexists in this country in a very acute form, and will persist.
While the number of unemployed in the U.S. as a whole has decreased over the past three years, in some parts of the country unemployment has lately jumped from 10% to 40%. Two of the larger steel producers, have had to lay off many thousands of their workforce, for the U.S. steel industry is no longer able to compete with imported steel, and there is a loud public demand for steel quotas or other import controls. The Administration seems reluctant to go along with protection since it fears retaliatory tariffs and quotas which could hit many sections of U.S industry. Thus the Department of Agriculture is subsidising southern tobacco farmers who subsequently sell their product at an unrealistically low price in South-East Asia; meanwhile, almost as many dollars are spent by the National Institutes of Health to counter the effects of tobacco smoking in its own population. But foreign competition is not the whole story; the steel industry also has to spend huge sums on pollution control. While efforts to lessen atmospheric pollution are obviously necessary, the impatience of the Environmental Protection Agency in promulgating and imposing its regulations is likely to jeopardise thousands of jobs-a fact which is slowly permeating through to Congress, and has not been lost on the Steel Workers’ Union of America, whose members are campaigning for the regulations to be modified.