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Budget cuts to Mars Sample Return mission prompt hundreds of layoffs at JPL

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NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will lay off hundreds of employees this week in anticipation of massive funding cuts in the next federal budget, JPL director Laurie Leshin told staff on Tuesday.

Despite pleas to NASA and the White House from California lawmakers anxious to preserve jobs at the La Cañada Flintridge research institution, the lab is letting go of 530 employees — approximately 8% of its workforce — and 40 additional contractors, Leshin said in a memo to staff.

“These cuts are among the most challenging that we have had to make even as we have sought to reduce our spending in recent months,” Leshin wrote. “As much as we wish we didn’t need to take this action, we must now move forward to protect against even deeper cuts later were we to wait.”

This is JPL’s second round of layoffs since the year began. In January, 100 on-site contractors lost their jobs after NASA directed the lab to reduce spending in anticipation of severe budget cuts for the Mars Sample Return mission, an ambitious effort managed by JPL that would bring pieces of the Red Planet back to Earth for study.

Though Congress has not yet finalized appropriations for next year, NASA has instructed JPL to prepare for a federal budget that could cap Mars Sample Return spending in the 2024 fiscal year at $300 million — 36% of the previous year’s $822-million budget allocation and less than one-third of the $949 million the Biden administration has requested for the program.

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“To spend more than that amount, with no final legislation in place, would be unwise and spending money NASA does not have,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

JPL employees will learn whether they are losing their jobs on Wednesday. Most JPL employees have been instructed to work remotely “so everyone can be in a safe, comfortable environment on a stressful day,” Leshin wrote. “Most individuals will not be able to enter the Lab during this mandatory remote work day.”

California lawmakers in recent months have pleaded with NASA to preserve jobs at the agency, which currently employs about 6,000 people full-time.

Earlier this month, a bipartisan group of more than 20 members of California’s Congressional delegation sent a letter to the White House Office of Management and Budget protesting NASA’s “deeply misguided decision” to pre-emptively cut spending before appropriations were finalized.

“Make no mistake: these crushing job cuts are the direct result of the Administration’s premature decision to bypass Congressional spending authority and unilaterally slash vital funding for JPL’s Mars Sample Return mission,” Sen. Alex Padilla, a signatory to the letter, said in a statement. “These dramatic cuts are devastating for our local workforce and will set California and America’s scientific and space leadership back significantly at this critical moment.”

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Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park) agreed that the job cuts will harm Southern California workers but expressed hope that they might be reversed. “I’m hopeful in the coming weeks we can work to broker a deal with the Administration and Congress to restore funding to the levels necessary to rehire workers,” she said in a statement.

The Mars Sample Return mission, a joint project with the European Space Agency, has been plagued with delays and cost overruns.

An independent review commissioned by NASA last year determined there was a “near zero probability” that the mission it would make its 2028 launch date.

The project is now on hold while NASA analyzes the review board’s findings. The team tasked with that review is scheduled to make its recommendations to NASA in March or April, Associate Administrator for Science Nicky Fox said last week during a public meeting of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate.

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California effort to confront implicit bias among doctors faces 1st Amendment challenge

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California effort to confront implicit bias among doctors faces 1st Amendment challenge

Los Angeles anesthesiologist Dr. Marilyn Singleton was outraged about a California requirement that every continuing medical education course include training in implicit bias — the ways in which physicians’ unconscious attitudes might contribute to racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare.

Singleton, who is Black and has practiced for 50 years, sees calling doctors out for implicit bias as divisive, and argues that the state cannot legally require her to teach the idea in her continuing education classes. She has sued the Medical Board of California, asserting a constitutional right not to teach something she doesn’t believe.

The way to address healthcare disparities is to target low-income people for better access to care, rather than “shaking your finger” at white doctors and crying “racist,” she said. “I find it an insult to my colleagues to imply that they won’t be a good doctor if a racially divergent patient is in front of them.”

The litigation is part of a national crusade by right-leaning advocacy and legal groups against diversity, equity and inclusion, or DEI, initiatives in healthcare. The resistance is inspired in part by last year’s U.S. Supreme Court ruling barring affirmative action in higher education.

The California lawsuit does not dispute the state’s authority to require implicit-bias training. It questions only whether the state can require all teachers to discuss implicit bias in their continuing medical education courses. The suit’s outcome, however, could influence obligatory implicit-bias training for all licensed professionals.

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Leading the charge is the Pacific Legal Foundation, a Sacramento-based organization that describes itself as a “national public interest law firm that defends Americans from government overreach and abuse.” Its clients include the activist group Do No Harm, founded in 2022 to fight affirmative action in medicine. The two groups have also joined forces to sue the Louisiana medical board and the Tennessee podiatry board for reserving board seats exclusively for racial minorities.

In their complaint against the California Medical Board, Singleton and Do No Harm, along with Los Angeles ophthalmologist Dr. Azadeh Khatibi, argue that the implicit-bias training requirement violates the 1st Amendment rights of doctors who teach continuing medical education courses by requiring them to discuss how unconscious bias based on race, ethnicity, gender identity, sexual orientation, age, socioeconomic status or disability can alter treatment.

“It’s the government saying doctors must say things, and that’s not what our free nation stands for,” said Khatibi, who immigrated to the U.S. from Iran as a child. Unlike Singleton, Khatibi does believe implicit bias can unintentionally result in substandard care. But, she said, “on principle, I don’t believe in the government compelling speech.”

The lawsuit challenges the evidence of implicit bias in healthcare, saying there is no proof that efforts to reduce bias are effective. Interventions have thus far not demonstrated lasting effects, studies have found.

In December, U.S. District Judge Dale S. Fischer dismissed the suit but allowed the Pacific Legal Foundation to file an amended complaint. A hearing is scheduled for March 11 in federal court in Los Angeles.

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In enacting the training requirement, the California Legislature found that physicians’ biased attitudes unconsciously contribute to healthcare disparities. It also found that racial and ethnic disparities in healthcare outcomes are “remarkably consistent” across a range of illnesses and persist even after adjusting for socioeconomic differences, whether patients are insured and other factors influencing care.

Black women are three to four times as likely as white women to die of pregnancy-related causes, are often prescribed less pain medication than white patients with the same complaints, and are referred less frequently for advanced cardiovascular procedures, the Legislature found.

It also noted that women treated by female doctors were more likely to survive heart attacks than those treated by men. This month, the Legislature’s Black Caucus unveiled a bill requiring implicit-bias training for all maternal care providers in the state.

Dr. Khama Ennis, who teaches an implicit-bias class for Massachusetts doctors, sees only the best intentions in her fellow physicians. “But we’re also human,” she said in an interview. “And to not acknowledge that we are just as susceptible to bias as anybody else in any other field is unfair to patients.”

Ennis offered an example of her own bias in a training session. Preparing to treat a patient in a hospital emergency room, she noticed a Confederate flag tattoo on his forearm.

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“As a Black woman, I had to have a quick chat with myself,” she said. “I needed to ensure that I provided the same standard of care for him that I would for anyone else.”

Ennis’ class meets the requirements of a Massachusetts law that physicians earn two hours of instruction in implicit bias to obtain or renew their licenses, as of 2022.

That same year, California began requiring that all accredited continuing medical education courses involving direct patient care include discussion of implicit bias. The state mandates 50 hours of continuing education every two years for doctors to maintain their licenses. Private institutions offer courses on an array of topics, and physicians generally teach them.

Teachers may tell students they do not believe implicit bias drives healthcare disparities, Fischer wrote in her December ruling. But the state, which licenses doctors, has the right to decide what must be included in the classes, the judge wrote.

Professionals who elect to teach courses “must communicate the information that the legislature requires medical practitioners to have,” the judge wrote. “When they do so, they do not speak for themselves, but for the state.”

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Whether they speak for themselves or for the state is a pivotal question. While the 1st Amendment protects private citizens’ right to free speech, that protection does not extend to government speech. The content of public school curricula, for example, is the speech of state government, not the speech of teachers, parents or students, courts have said.

The Pacific Legal Foundation’s amended complaint aims to convince the judge that its clients teach as private citizens with 1st Amendment rights. If the judge again rules otherwise, lead attorney Caleb Trotter said, he plans to appeal the decision to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, and, if necessary, the Supreme Court.

“This is not government speech at all,” he said. “It’s private speech, and the 1st Amendment should apply.”

“Plaintiffs are plainly wrong,” lawyers for Rob Bonta, the state attorney general, responded in court papers. “There can be no dispute that the State shapes or controls the content of continuing medical education courses.”

The medical board declined to comment on the pending litigation.

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From 2019 through July 2022, in addition to California and Massachusetts, four states enacted legislation requiring healthcare providers to be trained in implicit bias.

A landmark 2003 Institute of Medicine report, “Unequal Treatment,” found that limited access to care and other socioeconomic differences explain only part of racial and ethnic disparities in treatment outcomes. The expert panel concluded that clinicians’ prejudices could also contribute.

In the two decades since the report’s release, studies have documented that bias does influence clinical care and contribute to racial disparities, a 2022 report said.

But implicit-bias training might have no impact and might even worsen discriminatory care, the report found.

“There’s not really evidence that it works,” Khatibi said. “To me, addressing healthcare disparities is really important because lives are at stake. The question is, how do you want to achieve these ends?”

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KFF Health News, formerly known as Kaiser Health News, is a national newsroom that produces in-depth journalism about health issues.

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'What is this, “The Handmaid’s Tale”?' Exploring moral questions posed by controversial IVF ruling

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'What is this, “The Handmaid’s Tale”?' Exploring moral questions posed by controversial IVF ruling

Is a frozen embryo a child?

The Alabama Supreme Court says yes. In ruling this month that three couples who lost frozen embryos in a storage facility accident could sue for wrongful death of a minor child, the court wrote that the “natural, ordinary, commonly understood meaning” of the word “child” includes an “unborn child” — whether that’s a fetus in a womb or an embryo in a freezer.

Hospitals and clinics across the conservative state have since paused in vitro fertilization services as they scramble to figure out the legal and ethical ramifications of the decision. Transport companies are also on hold as they assess the risks of carrying embryos out of state.

To better understand the ethics of IVF and what this ruling means for clinics, families and the more than a million embryos stored in freezers across the country, we spoke with Vardit Ravitsky, a professor of bioethics at the University of Montreal and president of the Hastings Center, an independent bioethics research institute in New York. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

You became interested in the ethical issues of IVF as a college student, when a friend asked if you would consider donating an egg.

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I was almost 20. I was absolutely fascinated by the notion of carrying a fetus that is not genetically related to you. What does that mean to be the biological mother of a fetus that is genetically not your child? On the flip side, what happens when you give your egg to another woman and you have a genetically related child that is not yours?

The notion of genetic relatedness — IVF kind of broke that. You can now carry a fetus that is not yours; you can give your genetics to another person. That blew my mind, because it took the notion of motherhood that was the same for all of human history and broke it down into two components.

So technology can change our fundamental concept of human beings. And that’s what’s happening here. We’re talking about a batch of cells on ice, and we call it a child. That just wasn’t possible before.

Do people have a common understanding of what an embryo is?

Embryo, fetus and newborn baby are, first and foremost, medical biological terms. An embryo is the name we use in the beginning of the development, up to about 11 weeks pregnancy or nine weeks in embryonic development. Then, when it’s more developed, we call it a fetus. When it breathes on its own, outside of a female body, we call it a baby.

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The separate issue is when do we accord these entities moral status? We can call them whatever we want; we can call them cells or we can call them children. That’s a value-based, societal decision.

Do we treat embryos outside of the body morally in the same way that we treat them inside of the body? In most jurisdictions, we treat them differently.

For years, anti-abortion advocates in red states have pushed “fetal personhood” — the idea that life begins at conception and fetuses are children entitled to legal rights. Now Alabama’s Supreme Court has ruled that frozen embryos should be considered children. What ethical questions does this pose?

To imply or say explicitly that [frozen embryos] are children, in the same sense that fetuses are seen as children, to me, that’s a very dangerous development.

Think about it logically: If you have a pregnancy and you do nothing, and there’s no miscarriage, a baby will be born. If you have an embryo in a dish in a freezer and you do nothing, there will not be a baby.

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I would like women to have access to abortion because I care about their health and autonomy and their freedom to choose. When it comes to frozen embryos, it has nothing to do with a woman and with her body.

The potential of these embryos to become babies or children depends on so many steps: They have to be thawed, they have to continue to develop, they have to be implanted in the uterus, the uterus has to accept them, pregnancy has to develop. These are all steps that can still go wrong. To think of them as children in the same way that we think about newborns or fetuses is just, to me, going so far in how we understand the concept of a child.

In a concurring opinion, Alabama Chief Justice Tom Parker wrote that the people of the state adopted the “theologically based view” that “human life cannot be wrongfully destroyed without incurring the wrath of a holy God, who views the destruction of His image as an affront to Himself.” What does this mean for the future of IVF in conservative states?

Even if you say life begins at conception — for religious reasons or for any other values that you hold — you could still assign different moral values to the two scenarios of conception: outside of the body or inside of the body.

But if you take the view that life starts at conception and you apply that to in vitro, you are potentially shutting down IVF facility care. For clinics, as we’ve already seen beginning to happen, there are risks of handling human embryos that are very fragile biological entities. If the law treats them as children, then clinics rightly freak out about all that could happen to them during fertility treatments.

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Unfortunately, accidents happen in clinics: freezers malfunction, embryos get destroyed by accident. Sometimes they have to be tested, and the testing harms them.

Does treating embryos as children necessarily call into question clinics’ ability to provide IVF?

Even if there’s technically the possibility of continuing to provide IVF, under this framework of “embryos are children” … if you’re actually convinced that you’re treating children under the microscope, the risks are so huge that I don’t see how clinics will continue to function long-term.

What ethical and legal dilemmas do clinics face?

What is the extent and the nature of their liability if something happens to an embryo? Is it criminal liability? What part of the law would they be liable for?

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Now, in the current reality, couples can agree to the destruction of their embryos, they can donate them for research, they can allow genetic testing of those embryos. If this is a child that deserves independent protection, then what the couple wants becomes irrelevant.

If I owned a fertility clinic, I’d be very scared right now. If you treat embryos seriously as children, you cannot justify any level of risk. You cannot justify using them for training, for research. If we don’t allow genetic testing, we’re slowing down the quality of facility care, entire programs of research that are critical to biomedicine. The ripple effects are huge.

Could clinics be required to maintain all the frozen embryos they have in perpetuity?

Absolutely. If you don’t know what to do with them, other than implant in the uterus and start a pregnancy, then the obvious alternative under this ruling is to keep them frozen indefinitely, which costs hundreds of dollars a year. Currently, if parents abandon their embryos and stop paying the storage fee, clinics can destroy them after five years. But if that’s no longer an option, they will just accumulate and accumulate.

There are over a million frozen embryos in the U.S. today. And that number is growing all the time, because every time a woman undergoes a cycle, most often not all the embryos are used. So every cycle of IVF potentially leaves a few behind in a freezer. For clinics to carry that cost is a significant burden; IVF is already exceptionally expensive.

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If a frozen embryo is viewed as a child, could it be interpreted as having a right to be implanted and born?

Absolutely yes. Celine Dion famously said that her frozen embryos in New York are children waiting to be born. You know Sofia Vergara from “Modern Family”? Her ex named their frozen embryos and sued in their name — they were the plaintiffs — that they have a right to be born. He argued he can make that happen because he has created a trust in their name, he has a surrogate, he will father them, he will take responsibility; they will want for nothing. He said leaving them on ice is like murdering them.

The court in Louisiana dismissed the case on a technicality that the embryos were created in California. They didn’t say, “You’re being ridiculous!” So that line of thinking — that frozen embryos have a right to be implanted in order to be born — has already been tried in the U.S., and it wasn’t even refuted fully.

What is this, “The Handmaid’s Tale”? Catch women and impregnate them because [embryos] have a right to be born? Where do we stop?

So what’s the fate of the more than a million embryos stored in freezers?

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If state after state adopts this approach, then in those states, you will not be able to discard embryos or donate them for research or literally do anything with them, except seize them for reproduction. Will you be allowed to ship them to another state becomes the big question.

What does this ruling mean for patients in Alabama and other states with fetal personhood laws?

If I were in the middle of a cycle, and my eggs have not been retrieved yet, and I haven’t gone through fertilization, I’d be questioning whether I want to continue in Alabama. Because I wouldn’t know what I would be allowed to do with the embryos. If I had frozen embryos in Alabama, I would definitely look into shipping them to another state.

We have to remember that people going through IVF are very vulnerable. It’s a high-stress situation anyway, without the added layers of complexity and fear. At a medical level, such stress when you’re going through such an intricate process is definitely not in the best interest of patients.

As IVF clinics will shut down and move to other states, we’ll start seeing reproductive tourism within the U.S., just like we’re seeing with abortion. But the ethical problem with that is equity. Poor couples without resources will just not have access to IVF anymore.

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It’s been more than 45 years since the world’s first baby conceived by IVF was born in the U.K. What was the significance of that technological development, and what were the key discussions when IVF was developed?

At the time, they were called test-tube babies. That’s a term that we’ve luckily abandoned, because it implied that they’re artificial children. Some people saw the actual methods of fertilizing the egg outside the body as violating the sacred nature of the creation of life. The Catholic Church was and still is against this, because of the method of conception.

The other concern was, “Oh, these children will be stigmatized. They will not be like other children.” Beyond medical risks that we didn’t know about at the time, how will they be viewed by society? Now it’s so normalized. In some countries, 1 in 6 children is born from assisted reproduction.

Do you think this is a real turning point?

If you think globally, Catholic countries have grappled with the status of embryos for years. Germany, for example, does not allow the destruction of embryos, because the embryos are defined as a person in the Constitution. And that’s for the historical reason that they reject any kind of selection associated to life and will do anything to protect the dignity of human life. So this is new to the U.S., but it’s not new in the world.

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The shift has been from worrying about the technique, in itself, to worrying about who’s using it: gay couples using it, lesbian couples using it, single people using it with egg or sperm donation.

A married heterosexual couple using it to overcome infertility has become a nonissue. It became just medical care, no moral issues associated, other than: What do you do with your leftover frozen embryos that still remain?

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6 Great Space Images From February

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6 Great Space Images From February

Last fall, the Osiris-Rex spacecraft dropped off bits of an asteroid to scientists on Earth. After struggling to open the lid on the spacecraft’s container, scientists found that the mission had recovered more than a quarter pound of pristine space rock — the largest sample to date.

Erika Blumenfeld and Joseph Aebersold/NASA

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