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Posts Tagged ‘life’

Take a look at the new promotional video from 40 Days for Life UK. Robert Colquhoun explains what the work is all about; there are stories from some of the volunteers who have been involved in recent campaigns around the country; and there are some beautiful photos of some of the mothers who have been helped by the campaigns – sitting with their new-born babies.

The next 40 Days for Life vigils start on 25 September. See the UK website here.

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I’ve written a short piece about Pope Francis and the Priesthood for the commemorative edition of Faith Today that has just come out.

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I won’t copy the whole article here – you can order the special edition of Faith Today online –  but this is what struck me about Pope Francis’s approach to ethics and life issues (in so far as I could draw any hesitant conclusions from some of his words and actions as Cardinal Bergoglio):

Pope Francis has given witness to ‘a consistent ethic of life’. This phrase was coined by Cardinal Bernardin, Archbishop of Chicago from 1982 to 1996. It can be applied to Pope Francis in his approach to justice and life issues over the last few years.

In Buenos Aires he stood firmly against abortion, euthanasia, human trafficking, and all forms of violence against the human person. He criticised ‘the culture of death’ that influenced so much of society. He said, ‘The right to life is the first among human rights. To abort a child is to kill someone who cannot defend himself’.

At the same time, he fought for social and economic justice, and was always on the side of the poor. He said, ‘The unjust distribution of goods persists, creating a situation of social sin that cries to Heaven and limits the possibilities of a fuller life for so many of our brothers’.

His ethical approach was entirely consistent. He believed in the fundamental dignity of every human person, not excluding those who are sick, elderly, poor, oppressed, powerless or unborn.

He did not fit into the categories of secular politics because he was both ‘conservative’ (pro-life, pro-family, against same-sex marriage) and ‘progressive’ (fighting for social justice and for the poor).

Priests are called to have this same passion for life, and this same consistency. Not to be single-issue campaigners, but to speak out courageously whenever human dignity is threatened. Yes, we must be gentle, compassionate and forgiving to everyone we meet. But if we meet injustice in any form, it is our particular vocation to take a stand and be on the side of the poorest and most vulnerable.

This has made me want to go back and look more closely about what Cardinal Bernardin said about this ‘consistent ethic of life’. I know this approach was sometimes criticised, as if it were a way of watering down the core life issues, by suggesting that all social justice issues were equally important. But it seems to me to be a very straightforward point that shouts out from bible, the Christian tradition, and the Catechism: the need to defend human dignity against any and every threat, and to stand on the side of whoever is most vulnerable in society.

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When I was reflecting on the Year of Faith in Cardiff, I spoke about the power of witness. I gave the “40 Days for Life” movement as an example of what this can involve, and how effective it can be.

In case you haven’t heard of it before, 40 Days for Life is a peaceful prayer vigil that takes place outside a number of abortion clinics in the UK and throughout the world. At this very moment, people are keeping vigil. It’s not a protest or a political campaigning group but a form of witness.

There are three aspects to the project: prayer and fasting, education, and offering practical support and alternatives to women and men who are seeking abortion with an unplanned pregnancy.

40 Days for Life is not about trying to win an argument. There has been a feeling amongst many within the pro-life movement that the arguing, the dialogue, the political campaigning, have only taken us so far. It shows the limits of dialogue; not the futility – just the limits.

So there was a need for another strategy: witness.

First, the witness of prayer. Not just private prayer, which is hugely important, but also praying in public. With this public prayer, part of the purpose is to show that prayer matters, that there is another way of changing hearts, that we’re not alone in our struggles and sufferings – but that God is with us. This may sound a bit ‘pharisaical’. Didn’t Jesus ask us to shut the door and pray in private? Yes, but he also prayed with and for people, drawing them into his own prayer, and witnessing to the central importance of that prayer for all people.

Second, there is the witness of truth: offering information, leaflets, education, conversations, insights, etc. Sharing the simple scientific facts about human development; the physical, psychological and moral dangers of abortion; the practical alternatives. Being prepared to speak about this in public, to help those who are asking questions. And always to speak with patience, kindness and peacefulness; sometimes in the face of aggression or anger.

And third, and most importantly, there is the witness of charity, of love, in the 40 Days for Life vigil: offering real, practical support to women who are considering an abortion, very often because they have no support from anywhere else, and feel pressured into this choice by others or by circumstances. So this is not just the offer of leaflets or kind words, but very concrete assistance: helping them to find a supportive advice centre, giving them possibilities of financial help if they need it, even offering them a place to stay during the pregnancy and birth if they have been pushed out of their own home.

40 Days for Life really changes lives. I don’t just mean the number of women who decide to keep their babies because of the vigil (although, by the grace of God, there are many of these). I also mean the powerful and often unexpected effects of this witness on so many others: men and women who walk by and feel drawn into conversation, many of whom will have been touched by abortion in some way, because at last they have found someone who understands the sadness and the seriousness of it; people drawn to pray, simply through the witness and faith of those who are praying on the street corner there; people who stop to talk and enquire and even disagree – some of them having their minds changed, softened, or challenged in a non-aggressive way.

Another miracle is the effect that the vigil has had on so many of those who work in the abortion clinics. Over the years, internationally, quite a few abortion workers have had powerful conversion experiences, or small changes of heart, that have led them to leave the clinics and find work elsewhere. This isn’t because they have been pressured into this, but because through the witness of those on the vigil they have had the opportunity of seeing others who see things differently. The witness to life gives another way of looking at the world, another possibility, that awakens something deep in their hearts, and actually fits with what they secretly believed all along.

I am not putting this forward as an ideal model of what Christian witness looks like, and my purpose is not actually to open up the life issues themselves. I simply use this as one example of what witness can involve: prayer, words, and the work of practical charity and love. And I hope it gives an encouragement to all of us to see how powerful our witness can be.

[For more information about 40 Days for Life, see the international site here, and the London site here. I shared my own experiences of the vigil in this earlier post.]

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I’ve always liked Ron Mueck’s hyper-realist sculptures – his gigantic ‘Boy’ was the best thing in the whole Millennium Dome. His latest exhibition at Hauser & Wirth consists of just four pieces, but I spent a good hour entranced by just two of them, ‘Woman with Sticks’ and ‘Drift’, which form a kind of diptych. Taken together they offer a profound meditation on what it means to be human.

In the first, a naked middle-aged woman grapples with a bundle of sticks twice her size. She’s weary, but strong. Her body is marked with the scratches of the struggle. Her face glances to the side, betraying her exhaustion, but also a defiant joy, an impish delight at having achieved, finally, the unreasonable task set before her. The curve of her body, arching back against the weight of the load, meets the line of the branches, the woman almost merging with creation, and in geometric terms creating a glorious organic tangent – you know how much I like tangents!

What is this task? We don’t know. The exhibition notes talk about the woman tackling ‘the near impossible tasks set in fairytales and legends’. For me, she seems to represent the human person struggling with the self, with creation, with existence itself. Her back is bent almost to breaking point, but she is still standing – and that’s the defiant point. She is Atlas carrying the world. She’s the ordinary person, and the Olympic warrior. And if the sticks represent a more specific symbolic task, like in a fairytale, I was imagining her collecting them to provide thatch for her roof, or kindling for a mighty conflagration. In other words, she could have been building a home or lighting a beacon or setting the whole world aflame; she could have been embracing either life, or death. And going further, perhaps because this came up in our retreat last month, she was also Abraham and Isaac taking the wood up the mountain for the sacrifice, unsure about where they would discover the sacrificial offering.

The second piece, ‘Drift’, is described in the exhibition notes as “a small-scale sculpture of a lightly tanned man sporting tropical swim shorts and dark sunglasses, lying on a lilo with his arms outstretched. Instead of floating in a swimming pool, ‘Drift’ is installed high on the gallery wall, seeming to disappear off into the distance. Held up only by a puff of air and a sheet of plastic, the precariousness of ‘Drift’ provokes questions of the brevity of life.”

It’s a middle-aged Jack Nicholson, with the same Nicholson smugness and self-satisfaction. He is completely indifferent to the world, almost comatose with leisure. Or he is just a loving and hard-working man at the end of a busy year getting his well deserved rest, freed from the cares and responsibilities of the world. I’m not sure. There is an air of disengagement, even of anomie, reinforced by the title. And remember that this three-quarter size figure ‘lying’ on the lilo is placed vertically on a huge wall of turquoise. You confront this sculpture as a secular crucifix – he is there, high above you, in a cruciform figure. He is crucified by his own inertia and indifference, by the nothingness of his surroundings, by isolation and meaninglessness.

She is alive – gloriously alive – in her mythical battle to the edge of death. He is dead – existentially dead – in his holiday coma. She is taking her prey home in a clumsy march of triumph, staggering under the weight of her struggle. He is drifting up to the ceiling, into nowhere, weightless, without direction or purpose. What a beautiful meditation on what it is to be human, on the poles that we drift between over a lifetime, and sometimes within a single day. I could have stayed there for hours, and I am determined to go back before it closes. How heartbreaking that these pieces are for sale, and they may well end up in private hands, never to be seen again!

I don’t think Rachel Campbell-Johnston was fair in her Times review to say that Mueck’s sculptures, for all their phenomenal detail, have no soul, and that the spectator gets stuck on the surface. I can’t explain why, but my response to his work has always been very different – to ‘Boy’, to the wonderful National Gallery exhibition when he was artist in residence there, and to one or two other pieces I have seen over the years. I find myself drawn into the mystery of these oversized or undersized human beings. The detail doesn’t become a distraction for me, it’s more like a doorway. The figures are so lifelike that you almost feel you are in conversation with them. There is a presence about them, and an inner stillness, that is unlike any other representation in art that I can think of.

In fact the memory they bring back is of the Tilda Swinton exhibition in Rome in the late 1990s, when I was at seminary there. I missed the original sleeping beauty performance in the Serpentine in London, but in Rome she lay asleep in a glass exhibition case for a few mornings. Yes, it was voyeuristic – by definition. But it brought the same sense of presence to another person, in their sleep and hiddenness, that Mueck’s sculptures bring. The size helps as well. I prefer the three-quarter size figures, because there is a distancing – as if you are looking at yourself from the corner of the room – without any significant diminishment.

You can see that I am a fan. I wish there were more of Mueck’s work to see publically. I wish these two sculptures could be bought for a British gallery somehow, and put on permanent display. I’d love to buy them for a church, or maybe a church foyer; but I’m not in a church at the moment, and I don’t have the money! The exhibition is on only until 26 May. Details here. It’s easy to get to, at 23 Savile Row, London W1S 2ET, not far from Oxford Circus or Piccadilly tube stations.

There are two other sculptures. ‘Youth’ is magnificent, but I’d need another visit to give it time, and another post to write about it. ‘Still Life’ (a giant dead chicken) I don’t much care for – it loses the human, obviously! Despite all the metaphors and meanings, it doesn’t draw me into the soul of the person as the others do. Three out of four isn’t bad.

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I’ve managed to get to the 40 Days for Life vigil in central London a couple of times since it started on Ash Wednesday. People gather outside the BPAS abortion clinic in Bedford Square, between Tottenham Court Road station and the British Museum. They pray. They witness peacefully to an alternative vision of life to that offered by the abortion culture. And they offer practical and loving support to women and men who perhaps think they have no alternative to seeking an abortion. It’s non-confrontational and non-judgemental, and it takes place across the street from the clinic so that people visiting there do not have to walk directly past a row of people they would rather avoid. One hour there were two or three people; another time there were about ten.

If you have time, why not try to visit and join the vigil, even if it is just for a few minutes. I know many people will feel uneasy about this – I did myself. There is a natural nervousness about doing anything in public as Christians, and a fear that this could become confrontational, and perhaps a genuine question about whether this kind of witness might be unhelpful and even counter-productive. I had all these questions and all these fears.

In the end, three thoughts persuaded me to go. First, the fact of simply praying must be doing some good. Second, I know not just from reading about it but also from friends involved that this witness has really helped a few people to re-think what they are doing and supported them in keeping their babies; it’s given some people not just a new hope but also the practical support to do what deep down they wanted to do. It’s helped to really change hearts and minds. And third, I am often tempted to go round in circles considering the pros and cons of an argument, and I thought that I should just go and experience for myself what it is all about.

I won’t pretend every moment is easy. Every now and then someone will walk past and make a comment (‘It’s none of your business’, ‘A woman’s right to choose’), and in these moments I feel very awkward, and question what we are doing. But there is a pervading sense of peace and prayerfulness, and a heartfelt charity towards all those involved in the clinic. People at the vigil are not there to judge, but to pray and to offer hope. And you feel the reality of this prayer and hope when you are there, even if it highlights the starkness of the choices many people are facing.

It’s also true that the vigil becomes a small and rare sign in the middle of London, to ordinary passers-by, that abortion is an everyday reality in our city, and that there is another view, another possibility. Abortion is for the most part an unquestioned part of the tapestry of British life. I’m not judging anyone here; I’m judging the culture that normalises abortion and makes it seem strange that people would stand in vigil to offer an alternative voice.

I came away with my faith strengthened, glad to have been able to offer a small witness to life. I also came away encouraged in a very concrete way by the knowledge that when we were there one of the women on the vigil had been able to have a long and much appreciated discussion with someone visiting the clinic. What happened in the end I don’t know, but at least something was offered.

Another strange and unexpected effect on me was the sense of standing with those who are suffering, with those who have no-one else to stand with them – even if it has no ‘practical’ consequence. These innocent human beings who are being aborted have been ‘forgotten’ by their parents, by the doctors, by the nurses; but at least a few people are trying to show that they are not forgotten. It reminded me of the women standing at the foot of the cross – offering their compassion to the crucified Christ, even if this didn’t seem to help him directly.

So the 40 Days for Life vigil seems to me to be about prayer, witness, support and solidarity; things that are undeniably good, even if there remain complex questions about what they mean and how best to express them.

The main website about the London event is here. You can see the international site here. The London Facebook page is here.

This ‘mission statement’ is from the blog.

40 days of peaceful prayer, fasting, and outreach to bring an end to abortion. We will help any person, whether mother, father, relative or friend, facing difficulties and considering an abortion. We also care about those that work at the abortion clinic. We pray for them and hope for their release from the culture of death, recognising that they too are wounded by abortion. We work for a change of hearts and minds, and a culture that defends life from conception.

And this is a summary of what the vigil is all about:

A peaceful and prayerful vigil opposite the abortion facility were countless unborn children are killed everyday. We stand in witness and prayer for the unborn children, their parents, and the people who work in the abortion industry.

Please join us daily anytime between 8am and 8pm, seven days a week.

We ask that each of our participants sign the statement of peace, abide by the law, and remain prayerful.

It is a really great help to the organisers if you could sign-up online and book which times you are able to join us at the vigil. This helps us to know which times are covered and which times need people present. Simply go to this link, sign-up, and choose you days and times.

Location:  North West Corner of Bedford Square, London WC1B 3HP (Directions)
Dates:   February 22, 2012 – April 1, 2012
Time:   STARTS: 8:00 AM     ENDS: 8:00 PM

Here is the ‘statement of peace’ you have to sign if you go as a registered participant:

1. I will only pursue peaceful solutions to the violence of abortion when volunteering with the 40 Days for Life campaign

2. I will show compassion and reflect Christ’s love to all abortion facility employees, volunteers, and customers

3. I understand that acting in a violent or harmful manner immediately and completely disassociates me from the 40 Days for Life campaign

4. I am in no way associated with the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood or its affiliates by way of employment, informant, volunteer, client, or otherwise

While standing in the city right of way in front of the abortion facility:

5. I will not obstruct the driveways or sidewalk while standing in the public right of way

6. I will not litter on the public right of way

7. I will closely attend to any children I bring to the prayer vigil

8. I will not threaten, physically contact, or verbally abuse the abortion facility/Planned Parenthood employees, volunteers, or customers

9. I will not vandalize private property

10. I will cooperate with local city authorities

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I don’t post about every sermon I preach, but here are a few lines from a nuptial Mass I celebrated at the weekend about the difficulty and the importance of making promises today:

Lasso Lumineux

There is something very beautiful and very simple about the wedding vows that you will make in just a few moments time. A man and a woman promise to love each other without reservation for the rest of their lives, and to embrace all the implications of that love: To love for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do them part. To love the whole person, with their strengths and weaknesses, their successes and failures. And to be open to the new life that love always brings; whether that is through the gift of children, or through the life-giving love that flows from your friendships and openness to others.

It’s hard for people to make promises today, partly because we are unsure about so many things. Unsure about the future; unsure about who the other person will become; unsure about what we want now; and even more unsure about what we might want in the distant future.

But there is a paradox here. Making a promise is what actually makes something sure. When you promise to be faithful to each other, come what may, you give a security and strength to this love. We talk about ‘the bond of marriage’, not because it is a chain to take away your freedom, but because it creates a space in which you can keep loving each other, freely – which is what you both want most of all.

I was the priest at a friend’s wedding a few years ago. She’s Mexican, and they have this tradition of the lasso – you may have heard of it. As soon as the wedding vows are made, the families of the couple bring a lasso to the front of the church – one of these huge ropes that you catch cattle with – and literally tie the couple together as they sit beside each other. The bride, my Mexican friend, is grinning like a Cheshire cat; while the groom, who hasn’t got a drop of Mexican blood in him, is sitting there very self-consciously, with a face that says ‘what on earth is going on?!’

Now I’m not recommending this today; I’m just giving it to you as a symbol. When you make these vows, something big happens. You bind yourselves to each other; and God takes you at your word and puts his own seal on your marriage. It’s a bond of love. It’s the security given by your own promises, and by the promise of God.

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I’m halfway through Paul Davies’s book The Eerie Silence, about the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) project and the wider scientific and philosophical issues involved. One of the ways of investigating the probability of extraterrestrial life is to look at the vexed question of the probability of life on earth, and chapter 2 of the book is entitled, “Life: Freak side-show or cosmic imperative?”

Was there a high probability that any life, let alone intelligent life, would develop on earth? The answer is: we haven’t a clue. And that’s because we still have almost no understanding about how life developed on this planet in the first place; and we don’t even know if it started here anyway – it may have started on Mars and migrated on materials that got dispersed into the solar system and then fell to earth.

We simply don’t know how life began. As Charles Darwin said:

We might as well speculate about the origin of matter.

This lack of knowledge isn’t reflected in the ‘cosmic imperative’ mood of the scientific and journalistic moment. Many thinking people, in other words, believe that given the vastness of the universe the emergence of life must be almost inevitable. Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington declared in 2009:

If you have a habitable world and let it evolve for a few billion years then inevitably some sort of life will form on it… It would be impossible to stop life growing on these habitable planets… There could be one hundred billion trillion Earth-like planets in space, making it inevitable that extraterrestrial life exists’ [25-26].

The flaw in this probability argument is obvious even to a non-scientist like myself. Boss uses the word ‘evolve': if you let a habitable world ‘evolve’ then life is bound to emerge. That would be true if we had any evidence that a ‘world’ evolves. But we don’t. Life evolves, once it is started – we know that. But we can’t use an assumption about the progress of evolution within life as an argument that life itself, at its beginnings, is the result of a pre-life evolutionary process. We have no idea what such a process might involve, or any evidence that it took place, or any indication of what the probability of it taking place might be.

George Whitesides, Professor of Chemistry at Harvard University, gives the alternative view, which Paul Davies himself accepts. First of all he seems sceptical:

How remarkable is life? The answer is: very. Those of us who deal in networks of chemical reactions know of nothing like it… How could a chemical sludge become a rose, even with billions of years to try? … We (or at least I) do not understand. It is not impossible, but it seems very, very improbable [31].

But it’s not so much scepticism as a humble awareness of the impossibility of speaking about a high probability of life emerging when we know so little about what would or would not make it probable in the first place.

How likely is it that a newly formed planet, with surface conditions that support liquid water, will give rise to life? We have, at this time, no clue, and no convincing way of estimating. From what we know, the answer falls somewhere between ‘impossibly unlikely’ and ‘absolutely inevitable’. We cannot calculate the odds of the spontaneous emergence of cellular life on a plausible prebiotic earth in any satisfying and convincing way’ [31].

All we know is that it has happened at least once.

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Forgive the crude title, but this is the question I was discussing with a group of healthcare professionals recently. The specific topic was ‘brain death’, which is a phrase so widely used today that it hardly ever gets questioned. If someone’s brain is ‘dead’ then surely the person is dead as well? If the human brain has ceased to function then surely the human being has ceased to be alive? Not necessarily.

Much of the controversy is about organ transplantation. If you are going to take someone’s heart and give it to another person, you have to be sure that they are dead before you remove the heart, otherwise the act of removing the heart will be the very cause of their death. At least, that’s what most ethicists would say. The surgeon wants to know that he or she is taking a heart from a corpse and not killing a person. For many years, it has been assumed that if someone is certified ‘brain dead’ then they are definitely dead, and the transplant can go ahead. But this is being questioned more and more.

E. Christian Brugger, Senior Fellow of Ethics at the Culture of Life Foundation, gives some background:

For purposes of organ removal, there are two commonly accepted sets of criteria for determining that death has occurred: the “cardio-respiratory” standard and the “neurological” standard (sometime referred to as the “whole brain death” criterion). The Uniform Determination of Death Act formulated in 1981 by the President’s Commission and widely adopted throughout the U.S. defines the first as the “irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions”, and the second as “the irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.” Although each criterion focuses upon a limited set of critical functions, the state of death of the entire human organism is thought to be able to be inferred by focusing on any one of them.

In his 2000 address, John Paul II says that when “rigorously applied” the neurological criterion “does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.” He goes on to say “therefore a health-worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria [i.e., cardio-respiratory and neurological] in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as ‘moral certainty'” (No. 5).

In other words, the pope states that the neurological criterion seems to be a reliable basis for arriving at moral certitude that a person has died, which is required before harvesting vital organs can be legitimate.

But new questions have come up in the last few years.

Research has emerged in the past decade, especially by D. Alan Shewmon, professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA Medical Center and Consultant for the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, challenging the reliability of the widely accepted neurological standard.

Recall the pope says that death consists in the “disintegration of that unity and integrated whole that is the personal self” (no. 4), and that we can identify biological signs that follow upon the disintegration. It seems to follow that an apparent absence of certain biological signs of somatic (bodily) disintegration can raise reasonable doubts as to whether death has occurred.

Shewmon’s research demonstrates conclusively that the bodies of some who are rightly diagnosed as suffering whole brain death express integrative bodily unity to a fairly high degree.

Brain dead bodies cannot breathe on their own since the involuntary breathing response is mediated by the brain stem, which has suffered complete destruction. So the bodies need to be sustained on a mechanical ventilator, which supports the body’s inspiration and expiration functions (breathing in and out). But with ventilator support, the bodies of brain dead patients have been shown to undergo respiration at the cellular level (involving the exchange of O2 and C02); assimilate nutrients (involving the coordinated activity of the digestive and circulatory systems); fight infection and foreign bodies (involving the coordinated interaction of the immune system, lymphatic system, bone marrow and microvasculature); maintain homeostasis (involving a countless number of chemicals, enzymes and macromolecules); eliminate, detoxify and recycle cell waste throughout the body; maintain body temperature; grow proportionately; heal wounds (i.e., the immunological defense of self against non-self); exhibit cardiovascular and hormonal stress responses to noxious stimuli such as incisions; gestate a fetus (including the gaining of weight, redistribution of blood flow favoring the uterus, and immunologic tolerance toward the fetus); and even undergo puberty.

The data is indisputable. Yet there is considerable disagreement on how to interpret the data with respect to the question of human death. Some scholars such as James M. DuBois, writing in the 2009 “Catholic Health Care Ethics” manual published by the National Catholic Bioethics Center, refer to this long list of functions of brain dead bodies as “residual biological activities” no more expressive of life than the twitching of a lizard’s amputated tail. Others, including scientists and several philosophers and theologians who, with me, accept magisterial teaching, are less comfortable setting them aside as possible signs of true somatic integration.

Although Shewmon’s evidence certainly does not establish that brain dead bodies are the bodies of living (albeit highly disabled) persons, in my judgment, and in that of other competent scholars and scientists, it raises a reasonable doubt that excludes “moral certitude” that ventilator-sustained brain dead bodies are corpses.

It’s not an argument to say that a brain dead person is necessarily still alive – it simply suggests that there are serious doubts and questions about the meaning of brain death. And as long as such questions remain, we shouldn’t pretend that we have absolute confidence that a brain dead person is definitely dead. And if that’s the case, then there are implications for how we continue to care for such persons, and whether or not we transplant their organs.

If you want to follow this up, see this article on the Signs of Life conference on brain death in 2009; Pope Benedict’s 2008 address to a conference about organ transplantation; a Linacre Centre paper that touches on brain death, and another about the definition of death; and the NHS page about brain death, which includes the following uncritical remarks:

Brain death occurs when a person in an intensive care unit no longer has any activity in their brain stem, even though a ventilator is keeping their heart beating and oxygen circulating through their blood.

Once a brain stem death has occurred, the person is confirmed dead.

Unfortunately, there is no chance of a person recovering once their brain stem has died. This is because all of the core functions of the body have stopped working and can never be restarted. Although a ventilator can keep the heart beating, the person is effectively dead.

If permission has been given, organs can be removed for transplant and ventilation is withdrawn. Once ventilation is withdrawn, the heart stops beating within a few minutes.

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A few months ago I wrote about the possibility of discovering alien intelligence, and the whole SETI project. New research suggests that the planets close enough for us to investigate have environments that would be extremely inhospitable to life – at least to life as we know it.

Sophie Borland writes about Howard Smith’s recent findings.

Still waiting for little green men to make contact? Don’t hold your breath. A leading astronomer has concluded there probably aren’t any aliens out there – meaning we are entirely alone in the universe.

Even though there may be tens of thousands of other distant planets similar in size to Earth, the conditions on them are likely to be too hostile to support life-forms such as ET.

Dr Howard Smith, a senior astrophysicist at Harvard University, believes there is very little hope of discovering aliens and, even if we did, it would be almost impossible to make contact.

So far astronomers have discovered a total of 500 planets in distant solar systems – known as extrasolar systems – although they believe billions of others exist. But Dr Smith points out that many of these planets are either too close to their sun or too far away, meaning their surface temperatures are so extreme they could not support life.

Others have unusual orbits which cause vast temperature variations making it impossible for water to exist as a liquid – an essential element for life. Dr Smith said: ‘We have found that most other planets and solar systems are wildly different from our own. They are very hostile to life as we know it.’

‘The new information we are getting suggests we could effectively be alone in the universe. There are very few solar systems or planets like ours. It means it is highly unlikely there are any planets with intelligent life close enough for us to make contact.’

Not everyone agrees.

Only last month Professor Stephen Hawking said the fact that there are billions of galaxies out there made it perfectly rational to assume there were other life-forms in the universe.

Researchers from the University of London have recently suggested that aliens could be living on as many as 40,000 other planets.

But Dr Smith suggests that such estimates are optimistic.

He said: ‘Any hope of contact has to be limited to a relatively tiny bubble of space around the Earth, reaching maybe 1,250 light years out from our planet, where aliens might be able to pick up our signals or send us their own. But communicating would still take decades or centuries.’

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Yes, it’s just an advert for John Lewis. Yes, it’s just an audacious example of product placement. Yes, it’s a particularly unreconstructed fantasy of middle-class domestic life. But it’s beautiful.

To see a human life glide past you in less than two minutes – from the baby being lifted out of the cot, right through to the grandmother walking through the park with her elderly husband and grandchildren. With so many significant moments in between, choreographed and edited so that it seems to be a single movement, a single breath. (I just think they lost their nerve at the end by not showing one final scene in the hospital ward.)

It makes you realise how astonishing and beautiful and fleeting life is. It makes you wonder what it all adds up to, what it means, when the very things that seem to give it meaning race past so quickly and soon become lost in the past.

And of course none of this would work without that soundtrack…

If you haven’t seen it, do take a look. Don’t miss the first three seconds in the struggle to adjust the screen:

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I’ve been reading about the theme of solidarity in Pope Benedict’s encyclical Caritas in Veritate. It’s one of those ideas that is hard to disagree with: yes, we are all brothers and sisters who belong to one human family, etc. But he raises the uncomfortable question: who gets to belong?

Solidarity Mural by Atelier Teee.

Pope Benedict notes that a society can decide that a human life under certain circumstances is no longer worthy of respect. He’s writing about abortion, the eugenic selection of embryos, and euthanasia. But it’s important to see that he’s not just making a pro-life point. His argument is much bigger. It’s that as soon as you exclude a certain category of human beings from the class of those who are allowed to participate in human solidarity, then you undermine the foundations of all solidarity.

If you exclude the unborn, the terminally ill, or the disabled, you don’t just exclude the unborn, the terminally ill, or the disabled — you make all true human solidarity impossible, because what you have left is a form of belonging that is based upon power and exclusion. So even those who think they belong (the lucky ones who are still on the inside) — their belonging is no longer an opening out to others, releasing them from solitude and isolation, it is a closing in on themselves, a corruption.

This is how Pope Benedict puts it:

[In the pro-euthanasia mindset there is a] damaging assertion of control over life that under certain circumstances is deemed no longer worth living. Underlying these scenarios are cultural viewpoints that deny human dignity. These practices in turn foster a materialistic and mechanistic understanding of human life. Who could measure the negative effects of this kind of mentality for development? How can we be surprised by the indifference shown towards situations of human degradation, when such indifference extends even to our attitude towards what is and is not human? What is astonishing is the arbitrary and selective determination of what to put forward today as worthy of respect. Insignificant matters are considered shocking, yet unprecedented injustices seem to be widely tolerated. While the poor of the world continue knocking on the doors of the rich, the world of affluence runs the risk of no longer hearing those knocks, on account of a conscience that can no longer distinguish what is human. [#75]

There is a particular challenge for socially and politically engaged Catholics here: It’s not possible to separate pro-life issues from questions of social justice and development. They are both, at heart, the single issue of human solidarity. If you introduce an arbitrary definition of what allows you to be included in the category of ‘human being’, in effect you make it impossible for anyone to hold onto their inherent human dignity, because everyone is conscious or half conscious that they too may one day be excluded.

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Kate Wong brings us up-to-date on the latest research into the Neandertals in this month’s issue of Scientific American.

I’ve always been fascinated by ‘Neandertal Man’ as he/she used to be called. We think about what it would be like to meet aliens. (Well, I think about what it would be like to meet aliens!) Would we be able to communicate? Would we be able to understand each other? Yet here in our own back yard, in Europe and the Near East and much of Asia, modern human beings were living side-by-side with another hominid form, meeting and presumably trying to communicate, only 30,000 years ago. I refrained from saying ‘another human species’ because the great and still unresolved question is whether we belonged to distinct species, and whether or not modern humans and Neandertals could interbreed. And despite the theories about genocide (by humans), climate change, and diet – we still don’t know why they became extinct about 28,000 years ago.

Grottes de Lascaux II by davidmartinpro.It seems that they had jewellery and bone tools and made sophisticated weapons; but modern human beings had the edge – in their social organisation, in the efficiency of their physique, and in their sheer intelligence and creativity. ‘The boundary between Neandertals and moderns has gotten fuzzier’, writes Christopher B. Stringer – but there is still a boundary. There is something radical and new about human intelligence, a leap and not just a lurch, that gives rise to art, creativity, sophisticated language, morality, and some more reflective kind of self-consciousness. And, interestingly, one of the key markers for paleoanthropologists is the emergence for the first time among human beings of symbolic customs surrounding the burial of the dead. Human intelligence seems to go hand in hand with an appreciation of the significance of death.

Neandertals, we presume, in some way asked questions about how to live; human beings, as far as we can tell, are the only creatures to ask questions about the meaning of that living, and the possibility of living beyond death.

Prehistoric Painting by Klearchos Kapoutsis.

[A wonderful book that first got me interested in human uniqueness in relation to Neandertals is Becoming Human by Ian Tattersall, OUP 1998. It's probably a bit old now, but it is still in print]

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