Wednesday, September 12, 2012

What is Death?

The catch-line for a recent Discover Magazine article reads:

They urinate. They have heart attacks 
and bedsores. They have babies. They may even feel pain. 
Meet the organ donors who are “pretty dead.”

This article, a part of a larger book by Dick Teresi, talks about the fate of the so-called beating-heart donor. These are people who are declared brain dead and they donate their organs. The question is: is our definition of brain dead just? By defining death, is medicine treading on the property of philosophy? Publishing this book passage elicited letters from both sides of the debate. These letters were published in the following issue. Those who have benefited from such donations were quick to argue that this definition of brain dead has been well thought out and is just for both the donator and the person who receives the organ. Others wanted to share their own stories of the "pretty dead."

Due to the incredible advances in medical knowledge and technology in recent years, the line between life and death has been irrevocably blurred. We can keep people alive longer. We can detect even the smallest sign of life in a body. These advances have helped to manage and cure diseases that our ancestors would never had dreamed possible. They also have allowed us to put the body, the person, through hell to keep them alive.

The Uniform Determination of Death Act of 1980 states that:

An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.  A determination of death must be made in accordance with accepted medical standards.

This Act which has been accepted in most states was the first time that the brain death was accepted as a definition of death on a widespread basis. Brain death is generally accepted when the patient shows no signs of brain function. They show no response to pain, no reflexes, and no spontaneous breathing.

This is determined by two physical examinations by two separate doctors. An EEG is run to confirm when a patient has already failed the examination. All of the tests are ran again 24 hours later. If there has been no change the patient is declared brain dead.

There are many issues with this definition of brain death. First of all, patients who are dead according to the above criteria still exhibit a number of signs of life, as listed in the Discovery article:

• Cellular wastes continue to be eliminated, detoxified, and recycled.
• Body temperature is maintained, though at a lower-than-normal temperature and with the help of blankets.
• Wounds heal.
• Infections are fought by the body.
• Infections produce fever.
• Organs and tissues continue to function.
• Brain-dead pregnant women can gestate a fetus.
• Brain-dead children mature sexually and grow proportionately.
So, why is brain death defined as it is? The cynical writer of the Discovery article points to profit. This definition frees many more bodies for organ donation and the organ donation business is a lucrative one. While the donors family doesn't get paid (because that would be morally problematic), the hospitals and the doctors who do the transplants rake in the dough. The writer doesn't want to kill the industry, though, he just wants people to think more about the donors.

In my next post I will discuss the Catholic opinion on "brain death," stay tuned.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Are you Ascending?

I found this ridiculous website while searching images of the Ascension. Now, it's really, really sad that people publish stuff like this online. In this particular page, some New Age fan who apparently thinks the world is going to end in December of this year lists what he/she calls "Ascension symptoms." These are supposedly symptoms that a person is changing to a higher realm, that they are changing in tune with the accelerating change in the universe. Thankfully, they do have a small disclaimer that these could be symptoms of an illness. And they do have a cool illustration:

This is probably the reason why it came up in the image search, although I don't think Jesus' ascension was quite like this.
Here are the symptoms. In red is what these symptoms actually are (sorry to burst your bubble).

*Feeling as though you are in a pressure cooker or in intense energy; feeling stress. That's just it: stress!
* A feeling of disorientation; not knowing where you are; a loss of a sense of place. Can be normal. But if it happens intensely or for a long period, call a doctor.
* Unusual aches and pains throughout different parts of your body. Possibly depression, see a doctor.
* Waking at night between 2 and 4 a.m. This is actually really normal.
* Memory loss. You could be taking a drug (legal or illegal) that could be messing with your memory. Drugs as common as anti-histamines can mess with our ability to remember. Have you been toking?
* "Seeing" and "hearing" things. You really need to see a doctor.
* Loss of identity. Dissociative fugue can be caused by trauma or drugs. Also, it is common in life to lose our sense of self when changes occur or we are disappointed.
* Feeling "out of body". Can also be caused by trauma or drugs. Other possible causes include dehydration and sensory overload or deprivation. It is a common occurrence when suddenly waking up from a deep sleep. It can also occur during meditation.
* Periods of deep sleeping. Depression.
* Heightened sensitivities to your surroundings. If you are a woman, you might be pregnant.
* Dizziness, loss of balance, back and neck pain, ringing in the ears, "gritty" eyes, blurred vision, insomnia, and heart palpitations with difficulty breathing. You really, really need to see a doctor.
*Headaches. Depression as well as many other potential causes.
* Crying about anything, whether wonderful or sad. This means you are a deeply spiritual person who truly appreciates life. Congratulations!
* Not remembering the meaning of anything. Depression.
* Difficulty in remembering what you did or who you talked to a day or sometimes just an hour before. Didn't you already cover this.
* You don't feel like doing anything. Depression.
* An intolerance for lower vibrational things (of the 3D) reflected in conversations, attitudes, societal structures, healing modalities, etc. Good for you. Maybe you can help change the bad things you see in the world.
* A loss of desire for food. Depression.
* A sudden disappearance of friends, activities, habits, jobs and residences. This happens a lot to people who are mentally and/or physically ill because some people are just intolerant of the ill. You need to see a doctor.
* You absolutely cannot do certain things anymore. Depression.
* Days of extreme fatigue. Didn't you already list this.
* A need to eat often along with what feels like attacks of low blood sugar. Diabetes.
* Experiencing emotional ups and downs; weeping. Didn't you already list this.
* A wanting to go Home, as if everything is OVER and you don't belong here anymore. The desire to go "home" is normal. You might have some mild depression, but everyone wants to go "home."
* Feeling you are going insane, or must be developing a mental illness of some sort. See a doctor to check because it's "better to be safe than sorry," but as they say, "only the sane question their sanity"
* Anxiety and panic and feelings of hysteria. Anxiety or panic disorder.
* Depression. A lot of these symptoms sound like depression.
* Vivid, wild and sometimes violent dreams. Pregnancy or stress. 
* Night sweats and hot flashes. Hormonal changes, stress, spicy food, smoking. After eliminating all those possibilities, see a doctor because you might have a problem with your hypothalamus.
* Your plans suddenly change in mid-stream and go in a completely different direction. Depression and anxiety can cause this. Also, trauma or drugs. It can also be completely normal. Talk to somebody about it.
* You have created a situation that seems like your worst nightmare, with many “worst nightmare” aspects to it. Get help.

Sorry to burst your bubble. I've been there. I used to do it all, from tarot cards to the Ouji board. I know what it's like to search for answers to the ultimate questions. And there is a lot of truth and value to New Age philosophies. I found my Truth in Roman Catholicism, you may find your Truth somewhere else. But don't let your Truth stand between you and professional help.  

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Catholicism and abortion in cases of rape

Everyone should know by now about the infamous quote by Senator Akin. If you don't know, you can find an article here.

This has made me wonder, what is the Catholic response in regards to abortion in the case of rape?

I know that in the Church, it is considered licit to indirectly lead to the death of a pre-born child when the mother's life is at stake. For example, when a mother has uterine cancer that will kill her if the uterus is not removed and it cannot wait until the child is viable. Then, the goal is to save the mother's life, not to kill the child. In that case, killing the child is a horribly unfortunate outcome. As it says in the "Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services":

47. Operations, treatments, and medications that have as their direct purpose the cure of a proportionately serious pathological condition of a pregnant woman are permitted when they cannot be safely postponed until the child is viable, even if they will result in the death of the unborn child.  
So, effectively, the Church makes an exception in the case of the mother's life being in danger. We highly respect women who give their lives for their child, like St.  Gianna Beretta Molla, but we don't force the choice on them. That said, I need to clarify that the exception is for the life of the mother, not for the health. Many Catholics feel that making an exception for the health of the mother is too big of a loophole. The value of the life of the child should not be dependent upon the physical and mental effects of the pregnancy on the mother.

Perhaps that gives us a window into the Catholic response to the question of abortion in the case of rape. A pamphlet distributed by the USCCB states:

 Children are sometimes conceived as a result of an evil act, such as rape, but a child's worth does not depend on the circumstances of his or her conception. A child is always a great good in the eyes of God and a source of joy and love to his biological or adoptive family as well. While nurturing such a child to birth requires courage and sacrifice, aborting a child conceived in rape simply answers violence and injustice with even greater violence and injustice.

Pro-life Catholics rejoice in legislation that limits abortion to cases of rape, incest and the life of the mother because it will greatly reduce the number of abortions. However, they do feel that a child should not be punished for the sins of the father.

Sadly, I am not finding any resources for a pastoral response to rape. What are priests and lay ministers to do when faced with a woman who has been viciously violated who does not feel as if she can keep the pregnancy? There are guides for ministers helping women who are victims of domestic violence. Where are the guides for ministers helping victims of rape? There is a tremendous lack of Catholic counseling services for rape victims. I have never heard of any. I searched google for "Catholic rape victim" and two of the first three results were about sex abuse crisis.  A search for "Catholic rape counseling" gives links for many rape counseling services, but only one or two are linked to any Catholic organization.

For someone who believes that life starts at conception, the logic of keeping the child makes sense. You wouldn't execute someone for another person's crime, would you? But if one does not believe that life starts at conception, the idea of forcing a rape victim to keep their pregnancy seems grossly unfair and insensitive. While pro-life activists argue that aborting a child after rape is a violence on top of a violence, others argue that forcing a woman to keep the child is further taking away the autonomy of a woman who has already been violated.

I can see both sides of the situation and I think it would help the Catholic Church's position if we only had more services to help rape victims. We can't offer simple platitudes about "nurturing a child...requires courage and sacrifice" without giving women the tools and support to have that courage and make that sacrifice. Where is the canonized saint who was raped and carried the child to birth? Where are the counseling services? Where is the financial and emotional support? Preaching without action makes the Catholic Church appear very insensitive and heartlessly patriarchal in this situation.

In light of recent publicity of this issue, we can be a voice and a hand upholding the dignity of both the rape victim and the unborn child.

Edit: It is still up in the air on whether or not a Catholic hospital can give treatments like Plan B to women who have been raped. I have seen arguments both for and against. The general consensus seems to be that Plan B is morally permissible as long as conception has not already taken place. The debate is still not definitively decided.

Saturday, September 1, 2012

What is up with this week's readings?

This week at the weekday masses our first readings have been from 2 Thessalonians and 1 Corinthians. The usual pattern for weekday masses is that the first reading is usually from the Old Testament. I wondered why it was different. Had it always been this way? Was there something special about this time of year?

The short answer is because the Pope said so. The longer answer is a lot more interesting.

From the earliest of times, Christian services have always included readings from Scripture. These readings would come from both the Old and the New Testaments. As Justin Martyr describes:

On the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits; then, when the reader has ceased, the president verbally instructs, and exhorts to the imitation of these good things. Then we all rise together and pray, and, as we before said, when our prayer is ended, bread and wine and water are brought, and the president in like manner offers prayers and thanksgivings, according to his ability, and the people assent, saying Amen; and there is a distribution to each, and a participation of that over which thanks have been given, and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons.
Sounds a lot like what we do now, doesn't it?

Fast forward 1500 years. In light of the Reformation and Counter-reformation, the Council of Trent finally set the prayers and the rites of the Mass in stone for all Catholics everywhere to have the exact same liturgy. Before this, there were several "official" versions of the Mass in use in different parts of Europe. These versions had a myriad of little differences among them, although they all used the same basic format.

The new official version, called the Tridentine Mass after the place of it's birth in Trent, went through the same readings every year. The Sunday readings were exclusively taken from the New Testament and the Psalms. There were a few changes to the Mass between 1570 and Vatican II, but most of those changes didn't involve the readings.

Vatican II was the next change to involve the Mass readings. In Vatican II, changes were made to include more of the Bible in the readings. So the Sunday Masses were changed to how they are today. The first reading is from the Old Testament, then there is a Psalm, then a reading from the Epistles or Acts, and finally a reading from a Gospel. With the exception of a few major feast days, the Sunday readings change every year in a three year cycle. The weekday Mass readings change every year in a two year cycle. For example, we are now in Cycle B in the Sunday readings and we are in Year II in the weekday readings. Last year, we were in Cycle A on Sundays and Year I on weekdays. Next year, we will be in Cycle C on Sundays and Year I on weekdays. Or, you know what, just look at the chart below:

Sunday Readings
Weekday Readings
Cycle C
Year II
Cycle A
Year I
Cycle B
Year II
Cycle C
Year I
Cycle A
Year II
Cycle B
Year I
Cycle C
Year II
Cycle A
Year I
Cycle B
Year II
In order to cover as much of the Bible as possible, the first reading on weekdays can come from the Old Testament or the New Testament. I guess it's just a coincidence that in both Year I and Year II at about the same time of year our first weekday readings all come from the Epistles. The goal of the Vatican II council was to share all of the highlights of the Bible from the pulpit. If you go to Mass every day for three years, you will hear the vast majority of the Bible. Pretty cool, huh?