In 2004, in Huntsville, Ohio, six-year-old Alex Malarkey was involved in a “motor vehicle accident” (car crash) and was left quadriplegic due to neck injuries. He has been on a ventilator since the accident. He was listed as co-author of a book with his father in 2010 which described a visit to Heaven immediately after the crash. The book sold more than a million copies and was also made into a TV movie, but in 2012, Alex was quoted as saying that the book was “the most deceptive ever.” In 2015, he wrote an open letter to Christian bookstores that “forcefully disavowed” (Wikipedia) the book and referred readers to the Bible for accurate information. As a result, the publisher withdrew the book from sale in a first-ever near-death-event retraction.
The account that the boy gave of his near-death experience conformed closely to the Christian concept of Heaven, with the appropriate angels and details that could have been copied from a movie about Heaven. The open letter that the boy wrote, apparently in a final attempt to disavow the text, shows that the boy is still a devout Christian and believes in the sanctity of the text of the Bible. He states that the Bible was divinely inspired, which is still a Christian concept, although it shares that belief with other religions that revere holy texts.
It turns out that Alex is unable to receive any of the profits from the book and that his father controls the money. The boy’s parents have become estranged and the mother has said that the account in the book is “embellished” and inaccurate, distorted to make money. Books about near-death experiences and visits to Heaven in particular are apparently a “lucrative genre” (Wikipedia) of “nonfiction” or more accurately, religious literature. They seem to comfort readers with stories of Heaven that agree with popular religious beliefs.
Wikipedia lists several popular, million-selling books including “Ninety Minutes in Heaven” and “Heaven is for Real” but also lists the maligned “Twenty-three Minutes in Hell.” Some Christian writers have expressed concern about the items recounted in these books, stating that they are extra-Biblical, that is, not canonical, and may cause confusion among the faithful about what is and what is not an article of faith.
I am impelled to remind readers that neither the account of the near-death experience nor the retraction of it has anything to do with Christian beliefs per se. One can be a Christian without believing in near-death experiences. There is, at most, a doctrinal dispute between the boy and Christians who believed in the original account. That is, there is a variety of belief that accepts the validity of near-death experiences that include meetings with G-d and so forth, and there is another variety which accepts the validity of G-d but not of such experiences. I am impelled to document this fact, but not required to comment further on it.
So if you encounter anybody who chastises you for saying “gravity waves” because the phrase also has a meaning in fluid mechanics, tell them to spend eight minutes listening to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” ’Cause you know sometimes words have two meanings.
Shades of 1971.
In my previous post about Zika virus, I noted that it had spread from Africa and Asia, across the Pacific Ocean, with stops in Yap and Easter Island, and into South America. A recent article in the New York Times discussed the spread of Zika into Brazil and its appearance as an epidemic after the 2014 soccer World Cup: a definite identification was made by May 14, 2015. Early in 2015, in Brazil, patients began to appear in large numbers with fever, rash, joint pain, and headaches. Most patients had mild disease, but complications showed up soon: Guillan-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological syndrome.
By March of 2015, cases had spread to Salvador, a city of 2.5 million; by April, the cause of the “mystery disease” had been identified: Zika virus. Ironically, Zika had already been identified in the US in travelers from the Pacific.
The first identification of Zika virus in the US came from an international traveler who had just returned from a tour of the western Pacific in December 2013. He walked in to the Traveler’s Medical Service on Madison Avenue in New York City with a rash that, he said, had persisted for eleven days. The nurse practicioner who first saw him thought he had dengue fever, but the symptoms were not nearly severe enough. The traveler, an intelligent, sophisticated man, told the NP that he knew he had Zika virus. He had been reading reports in the newspapers in Polynesia about the virus and its sudden appearance in the islands.
The patient had also read an article about a scientist in Colorado who had infected his wife with Zika after returning from Africa. Because of this, he avoided having unprotected sex with his partner and kept her from being infected. The CDC later issued a warning about transmission of Zika virus through unprotected intercourse.
He had even heard about cases of Guillan-Barre syndrome. This condition is a form of temporary paralysis that starts distally, in the hands and feet. The syndrome is usually resolved after several weeks, but it can be deadly if it reaches the muscles that power breathing; immediate placement on a ventilator if a patient develops distress is required to assist respiration. It is thought to be caused by an autoimmune attack on the nerves that supply voluntary muscles, a side effect of the body’s immune response to the viral attack.
Back in Brazil, numerous cases of Guillan-Barre syndrome began to appear. Then, in July 2015, a pair of twins, one of them afflicted with microcephaly (a small head), were born in Recife. In August, the parents brought the infants to a famous neurologist, Dr. Vanessa van der Linden; she ruled out the usual causes of microcephaly: syphilis, toxoplasmosis, rubella, and other congenital infections, as well as genetic causes like Down’s syndrome. By September, the public hospital in Recife had five cases of microcephaly. Dr. van Linden’s mother, a pediatric neurologist, soon had seven cases of microcephaly at the hospital where she worked.
Recife is in northern Brazil, and Natal, capital of the state of Rio Grande do Norte, is about 200 miles up the coast from Recife. Natal was one of the host cities of the World Cup soccer championship.
The infants tested negative for Zika virus, but many of their mothers recalled having had an illness with a rash months earlier, during their first trimester of pregnancy. Most of these women were from rural areas, and had minimal to no education. “Dr. Kátia Petribu, a hospital psychiatrist in Recife” described the overwhelming experience of the mothers: they came by bus from far away, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and their peculiar children. ‘ “They come with nothing,” she said. “No food. They travel by bus for hours, arrive at 7 a.m., and wait for hours to be seen.” ‘
In severe cases, these infants appeared to have no foreheads: their faces simply terminated at the eyebrows. The mothers, with no knowledge of medicine, had forlorn hopes that their children would somehow grow out of it. Many of them were in shock at the appearance of their monstrous children. The infants still behaved as if they were normal: they nursed normally, slept, woke up, cried, and were comforted.
The criterion for microcephaly had been a head size of 33 cm at birth; to narrow the definition, scientists changed the measure down to 32 cm.
Dr. Mauricio L. Nogueira, from the southern part of Brazil where no cases had been seen, visited a hospital in the north and was stunned by what he saw: 25 infants born in a single ten day period with microcephaly. The NYT says: “He is still haunted by what he saw.” ‘ One mother, he said, looked up at him and asked, “Hey, doctor, his head is going to grow, right?” ‘
The World Health Organization (WHO) declared a public health emergency on February 1, 2016 because of a spike in cases of Guillan-Barre syndrome and microcephaly in the Americas. WHO has a Q+A page with general information about the virus and additional materials on line. WHO has also coordinated activities of scientists around the world and is working on controlling the Aedes mosquito which carries Zika. The same control measures used for malaria would be effective against Zika.
In November 2015, scientists obtained amniotic fluid (the fluid that surrounds the growing fetus) and found Zika virus. Two stillbirths were analyzed and, again, Zika virus was found in their brain tissue. This represents the first time a mosquito-borne virus has been directly associated with congenital malformations.
At last, the epidemic appears to have peaked: in Recife, the incidence of microcephaly in newborns appears to have declined during the last three weeks. This was the first spot that the infection was recognized in South America, and there are some 600 million people on the continent who have never been exposed before. Thousands of cases of microcephaly have been reported in Brazil and Colombia, most thought to be linked to the Zika virus.
North America has never been exposed to the virus, and epidemiologists think there will be at least small outbreaks here. There are areas of the southern United States where mosquitoes breed year-around, and these are likely to have some degree of spread of the virus. Aggressive mosquito-control measures are warranted and have already begun in Florida, Texas, and across the South.
Zika virus was first described in Uganda in 1947. It was detected only because blood viruses in monkeys were being studied. Even in people, there are few symptoms. The virus spread to the Pacific Islands from Africa and Asia, then to South America in 2013-15.
Zika is thought to be spread by mosquito bites. The symptoms are described as “mild” and last about 4-7 days; they consist of fever, joint pain, rash, and conjunctivitis (red eyes) in about 1 in 5 exposed people, with headache and muscle pain at times. The incubation period is probably a few days to two weeks. Fatalities are said to be “rare” (unless you are affected.)
The greatest concern is for women who are pregnant when they become acutely ill with Zika. An increase in the incidence of microcephaly in epidemic areas of Brazil was reported and the Brazilian Ministry of Health established a registry of cases in the fall of 2015. Of 37 cases reported, 35 could not be attributed to known causes; one had cytomegalovirus and one had a genetic anomaly. Most (71%) of the mothers reported an acute illness with fever and rash during the pregnancy, and all were negative for syphilis, CMV, etc., etc. The historical incidence of microcephaly at birth was about 0.5 per 10,000 births but a new estimate could not be given.
A detailed timeline of the known spread of the Zika virus is available from NPR here. First detected in the Zika forest in Uganda, it was followed in Central African countries until 1981. Asian countries, from India to the Phillipines, were also found to have cases in the fifties to the eighties. In 2007, the virus jumped to Yap Island and infected virtually all of its seven thousand residents. In 2013-14, the virus continued across the Pacific, finally to Easter Island, and then in 2015 it appeared in South America. There are estimates of at least a million Brazilians infected already.
Then, in 2015, a woman gave birth in Hawaii after having been in Brazil while pregnant. The infant had microcephaly. More than a dozen imported cases of Zika in adults have been found in the US during the course of 2015. A Centers for Disease Control report published in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report on Zika and microcephaly is here.
The latest New York Times (NYT) story has Gloria Steinem and other women political pioneers scolding young women for backing Bernie Sanders instead of Hillary Clinton. “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!” is how Madeline Albright termed it.
Indeed, there is a distinct political uncertainty created when one backs a seventy-four year old socialist Senator against the heir apparent to the Democratic leadership, a woman who is favored in every poll over every Republican. Almost equal to the uncertainty introduced when one backs Donald Trump, a man who has already lost most of the female vote and all of the Hispanic vote, against Jeb Bush, who at least has the name value of a solid Republican.
An oddly symmetrical degree of political uncertainty develops when one considers the possibilities introduced by off-center candidates who might be thought unlikely to win but not having been considered against each other simply because they are so unlikely. There is a potentially severe degree of Republican control of government created if the President happens to be Republican, with both houses of Congress majority Republican. For Democrats, this is very bad. History has also shown poor results, especially during the last Bush administration.
Recent history has shown good results for a Democratic President. Steady economic improvement with a steadily dropping unemployment rate and a steadily dropping yearly deficit in accounts are the results of recent history. In foreign policy, we have withdrawn from Afghanistan and Iraq, two painful, prolonged, and ultimately poorly benefitted conflicts, and avoided inserting troops in Lybia and Syria. Avoiding open conflict in Syria and Iraq, in particular, has frustrated the ambitions of the Islamic State and negated their prophecies.
At the same time, the Democratic administration, in concert with multiple Western countries, has negotiated a treaty with Iran whereby the Iranians agree not to pursue offensive nuclear technologies and will receive relief of economic sanctions in return, creating an economic boon for both sides. The Republicans have vilified this treaty but their negative arguments are not convincing when set against the agreements with a half-dozen other countries.
On the other hand, there is wide speculation among the Republican establishment about the tragic consequences of Trump being the Republican candidate for President and winning, to the destruction of Republican patronage. This is a more serious consequence to them, the loss of establishment Republican influence and the take-over of the Tea Party Republicans. They haven’t considered the possibility of the collapse of competent government after a Trump victory. Nor have they considered the possibility of a descent into overt fascism with 12 million Mexicans taking the place of 6 million Jews.
The New York Times (NYT) has come out with a piece about Justice Clarence Thomas and how he almost never asks questions from the bench during oral arguments. His explanations for this vary: first, he is ashamed of his Georgia accent; second, the cases have already been decided, and the oral arguments are just theater. In reality, he has nothing to say, because he has already decided his opinion on the case (or has had his opinion handed to him by Antonin Scalia.) He is arguably the worst Supreme Court Justice ever appointed (although there could be some other candidates) and his silence is justifiable on the grounds that he has nothing to say.
Here are some representative reader comments on the NYT story:
A decade and a half ago, I learned from a person at the Supreme Court in a position to know that Clarence Thomas had never ordered a single case from the library. Never to that point. It was clear too from his lack of requesting documents that he had never written an opinion that came out under his name; Scalia had written all of them. One may assume that the librarians play a different role now that so much information is in digital form, so perhaps we cannot so easily trace how little work Thomas is doing. Nonetheless, why should anything have changed? He’d already been on the bench well over a decade when that Supreme Court staff person outed him for doing absolutely nothing as a justice. You say that Thomas should talk, but what would he say? There is no indication that he has studied the cases, the laws that could shape them, or anything else but his marching orders from Scalia, ALEC, and the Koch brothers.
Maybe it’s also about sex, but what it’s really about is maintaining control over women’s autonomy, child-bearing, and personal health decisions. All of which go to the heart of the ability of women to have an independent life in society, especially working class women and women who have no independent income of their own. Women who have no control over their own reproductive choices – and I don’t mean only through access to abortion as a last resort but through planning and contraception and education from the get go – typically have no control over when and with whom they choose to have sex, including in marriage. (Most people still don’t believe there can be such a thing as rape in marriage, for example, which may be an extreme case but certainly still occurs.) The ongoing attacks on Planned Parenthood are only marginally about access to abortion or Puritanism about sex in my opinion; they are far more about control and the reestablishment of a culture and society in which white men (not only, but in particular) feel more in control of home and family, etc. – an effort to take us back to the “Father Knows Best” and “Make Room for Daddy” days when if you were white and middle-class, life was so much simpler.
The above comment was one of nearly a thousand comments in response to an editorial entitled “Vindication for Planned Parenthood”, which discussed action taken by the Grand Jury in Harris County, TX. This Grand Jury was convened in an attempt by the District Attorney to indict Planned Parenthood for something, anything… In response to the evidence presented, the Grand Jury refused to indict Planned Parenthood for anything at all. Instead, they indicted the makers of the infamous “baby parts for sale” video for a felony, presenting false identification (a fake [non-official] California driver’s license that included their real photographs but used a false name and address) in its successful attempt to infiltrate the group. A charge, a misdemeanor attempt to “purchase human organs” was brought forward, in response to an email that the makers of the video sent to Planned Parenthood that offered to buy fetal parts for $1,500 a sample; Planned Parenthood never responded to the email.
The response of Texas government officials to the indictment was predictably muted. The District Attorney for Harris County stated, “I respect their decision on this difficult case.” The Governor of Texas said that the Inspector General of the Texas Commission on Health and Human Services and the Texas Attorney General have been investigating Planned Parenthood and that “Nothing about today’s announcement in Harris County impacts the state’s ongoing investigation… The State of Texas will continue to protect life, and I will continue to support legislation prohibiting the sale or transfer of fetal tissue.”
The state’s Attorney General said, “The fact remains that the videos exposed the horrific nature of abortion and the shameful disregard for human life of the abortion industry. The state’s investigation of Planned Parenthood is ongoing.” He neglected to mention that abortion requires the death of a human fetus, nor that the rights of the woman involved were being violated by forcing her to carry her human fetus to term.
Naturally, the ethical considerations involved in the contemplation of abortion have been and are being ignored. As I have stated here before, it is a simple matter of justifiable homicide: the fetus is attempting to take over the life of the pregnant woman and to force it to enslave herself to its care for eighteen or twenty-one years, not just endanger her own life for nine months. The ethical requirement that one person save the life of another who has attached him or herself to her body without her consent simply is not there.
For example, let us describe a hypothetical situation: suppose you were to wake up one morning and find yourself attached to another person by tubing that runs from your arteries to its veins and back again. Before you went to sleep, you had engaged in an act of sexual intercourse, but you had used the most effective means available to prevent any consequences (pregnancy); despite your precautions, the other human being has managed to attach itself to you. The other human’s spokesperson tells you that you will be required to continue the attachment for another nine months, and at the end of that time, you will undergo an extremely painful procedure lasting about twelve to twenty-four hours that will result in separation. After that, you will be required to support and nurture that human, to the exclusion of all other activities in your life, for another eighteen to twenty-one years.
The question is, can that other human ethically (never mind legally) force you to continue this arrangement? Remember that you have not consented to the hookup; in fact, you have used whatever means necessary to prevent it. The only thing you have done wrong is to engage in sexual intercourse, an activity that results in pregnancy less than three percent of the time even when no precautions have been taken.
The ethical answer to this question is NO. Even if the other human has no recourse other than to hook itself to you, even if that human will die without your help, you are not ethically obliged to help them. In the simplest case, we can drive past the scene of an auto wreck without stopping, even if we see another person lying bleeding on the street. Naturally, most of us would volunteer to stop and offer whatever assistance we are capable of; however, we are not obliged to do so, even if we have special training in life-saving procedures. This situation is far simpler than that of a pregnant woman: the woman is faced, not with momentary inconvenience or minor danger, but with giving up her entire life, her hopes for college or a well-paying job, or even her ability to feed the other children she may have.
These are the ethical and personal considerations that face a woman who has not consented to become pregnant. The life of her “unborn child” (embryo or fetus) is weighed against her life, not just in a medical survival sense, but in the sense of taking on lifetime obligations to her offspring.
You may consider that it is selfish of a woman to choose her own life above that of her offspring. That may be true. However, there is no law against being selfish, or else the Koch brothers would not control billions of dollars in resources that could be better used to support the lives of thousands of other humans. It seems that the anti-abortion fanatics are selective in whom they would require to be unselfish, or rather self-sacrificing.
There is no ethical requirement for a woman be sacrifice her self for the benefit of a child, not yet six months in the womb, that she does not want. There is a legal requirement, enshrined in Roe v. Wade, that has withstood (so far) repeated attempts to overturn. This judgement, while it may be accused of “judicial activism” set forward for the first time very clear dividing lines between constitutional and unconstitutional laws regarding abortion. First, the judgement states that the law may not proscribe abortion at all during the first trimester (twelve weeks) of pregnancy. Second, the law may only require that the facilities for providing abortion during the second trimester are medically suitable (safe for the mother.) Third, the law may proscribe abortion during the third trimester, that is, after the fetus has become viable outside the womb.
When the judgement was written, it was generally believed that infants under twenty-four weeks gestational age had no chance of survival outside the womb. This has changed somewhat; the chance of an infant under twenty four weeks of surviving has improved to about twenty-five percent. Over half of all infants of this age who survive have already sustained major organ damage and will have a very limited life as well as reduced life expectancy. These statistics relate to infants born to mothers who want them, not to survivors of abrupt delivery (such as might occur in an abortion.) This is important because most pregnancies that are terminated this late are aborted because there is evidence on ultrasound of a serious anomaly, such as hydrocephalus, which is incompatible with life or with consciousness.
Those pregnancies that do not show serious anomalies that are aborted this late occur because there has been a delay in performing the abortion. It would be highly unusual, not to say abnormal, for a woman to suddenly decide that she no longer wants a pregnancy at this late date. Usually, the mother is under age and there have been delays in obtaining judicial permission or even in making the diagnosis of pregnancy.
The anti-abortion fanatics have tried to abuse science to the point at which they can claim that a twenty-week fetus can “feel pain.” Such claims are as absurd as they are irrelevant. Whether or not the condemned prison “feels pain” when he or she is executed seems to be a matter of indifference to these fanatics. The idea that a developing fetus can “feel pain”, that the necessary nerves are hooked up to the point at which a conscious sensation of pain or suffering can be induced, is laughable. If the possibility of pain is of concern to these hypocrites, they can ask that the fetus be given an overdose of anesthetic, such as is done in executions. What is truly absurd is the thought that an anesthetic would have the same effect on a developing fetus as it would on an adult or even a child.
Such issues are irrelevant: the main point is that a woman has an absolute right to decide whether she wants to have a child or not. No-one else can make that decision for her. For societal safety and convenience, the Supreme Court has said that we may outlaw abortion after the development of viability, not to mention after a normal birth. We have not yet, and may never, reach the point at which, as a society, we are so overpopulated that the life of a breathing, kicking infant can legally be ended. We will likely never reach that point because the development of technology has reached the stage at which the mother can take a pill and, with pain and cramping, have a miscarriage before the eighth week of pregnancy.
The absurdity of the anti-abortion position has reached the level, in Texas, that the provision of normal health care to women has been grievously affected. This has happened because the Texas legislature has defunded all women’s health care providers who are connected in any way with an abortion provider. This has forced most Planned Parenthood clinics in the state to close and revealed that they are providing essential services to thousands of poor women who have no other resource.
This lack of contraceptive and pregnancy services has resulted in thousands of unintended pregnancies and deliveries, most of which result in increased payments by the state for health care and welfare services. The Texas state government has estimated that they are liable for billions of dollars in costs for welfare and health care. The problem was so huge that the Texas Legislature was forced to take remedial measures; unfortunately, once a clinic has been closed and its personnel have left for other jobs in other states, it is very difficult to re-assemble the clinical service because the personnel cannot be found.