Tw**ts: Zebrafish larvae and hitchhiking blackbirds

A tw**t from Science Porn:

Screen shot 2015-08-04 at 4.49.17 AMAnd from the U.S. Dept. of the Interior, a hitchhiking red-winged blackbird:

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h/t: Grania, John W.

An unholy alliance: Templeton and BioLogos

Readers know well that I’m a frequent critic of the John Templeton Foundation (JTF) and BioLogos, both of which are accommodationist groups that try to harmonize science and religion. I’m not alone in my criticism, at least of the JTF: others in my camp include physicist Sean Carroll, philosopher Dan Dennett, and Richard Dawkins. Here’s a paragraph on the JTF from Dawkins’s upcoming book, Brief Candle in the Dark, (UK Amazon site here), the second volume of his autobiography (out in September):

In its early years the Templeton Prize, pegged by its naively benevolent founder to exceed the Nobel in monetary (though of course no other) value, was awarded to frankly religious figures such as Mother Teresa and Billy Graham. A little later, the black spot moved on to scientists of no great distinction but who happened to be openly devout. As an exact reversal, yet more recent prizewinners have included scientists of genuine and enormous distinction, not really religious at all but willing to utter the occasional ‘spiritual’ deepity and therefore sprinkle on religion some of the gold dust of true science. Freeman Dyson and Martin Rees are the prime examples. What is the next Faustian progression: notorious atheists prepared to stage a Damascene conversion? Dan Dennett, begetter of the excellent ‘deepity’ coinage itself, might seem to be a prime candidate; or, as he himself said to me, ‘Richard, if ever you fall on hard times…’

I discovered, thanks to an alert reader, that the links between BioLogos and the JTF are persistent and strong, at least as far as funding is concerned. If you read the new 2014 BioLogos Annual Report, you’ll see that they’re getting less and less scientific and more and more religious. I predicted this because their mission—to convert evangelical Christians who are creationists into people who accept evolution—is largely futile. Instead, BioLogos seems to spend much of its time “dialoguing” with creationist organizations and promoting what they now call “evolutionary creationism”. That term is clearly not scientific at all, but is a bastard hybrid between science and religion, privileging both.

Who’s supporting BioLogos? You won’t be surprised at this: a dialogue between the organization and two creationist organizations was sponsored by our old friend, the John Templeton Foundation, which is still pretending to be science-friendly. From the BioLogos report:

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Do you seriously think that anybody from Reasons to Believe or the Southern Baptist groups became ardent advocates of evolution? I doubt it: this money was totally wasted if that was the aim.

The sponsor of this ludicrous conclave:

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Here’s another and much larger grant given to BioLogos by Templeton for their “Evolution and Christian Faith” project:

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That’s nearly five million dollars gone to osculate the rump of religion.

Finally, here is BioLogos’s Board of Directors, which includes not only the chair of the University of Wisconsin’s Department of Zoology, but also Jennifer Wiseman, head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s “Dialogue on Science, Ethics, and Religion” (DoSER) project, another unconscionable infusion of science (in this case, the nation’s most prominent organization of scientists) with religion.

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I’m sorry, but I find it shameful, embarrassing, and contradictory for a reputable scientist to spend his or her time harmonizing the hard facts of science with the fanciful and false speculations of superstition.

h/t: Douglas

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Accommodationism in Nature: A prestigious scientific journal lauds the Pope on global warming, neglects his retrograde stance on birth control

Many people were excited by Pope Francis’s Encyclical on Global Warming, for Francis acknowledged that global warming is largely caused by humans, and also has a disproportionate effect on the poor. Although I’m not sure how much a Pope’s words on such issues can affect public policy, especially given the inertia of nations and the influence of companies that pollute, that’s all well and good, though I still think that the Pope’s stands on important issues don’t presage a serious revision of Catholic doctrine.
Indeed, that was the opinion of Nick Cohen, Steve Pinker, and Lawrence Krauss (earlier posts here, here, and here), who pointed out that one of the main causes of global warming is overpopulation, and that the Pope not only refused to implicate this issue, but in fact rules it out as anything that needs to be addressed. That is clear in this quote from Chapter 5 of Francis’s encyclical:
50. Instead of resolving the problems of the poor and thinking of how the world can be different, some can only propose a reduction in the birth rate. At times, developing countries face forms of international pressure which make economic assistance contingent on certain policies of “reproductive health”. Yet “while it is true that an unequal distribution of the population and of available resources creates obstacles to development and a sustainable use of the environment, it must nonetheless be recognized that demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”. To blame population growth instead of extreme and selective consumerism on the part of some, is one way of refusing to face the issues.
No, demographic growth is not fully compatible with an “integral and shared development.” And to claim that population growth has no effect on global warming is insupportable.
But of course the Pope can’t really go after population growth for two reasons: the Church needs more Catholics to stem the nearly worldwide exodus from the faith, and because the Church’s official stance is that any form of birth control other than the ineffective “rhythm method” is immoral.  And the rhythm method is the worst possible method of birth control, with a failure rate of 18% or more per year.
What the Pope is doing, then, is simply ignoring one of the major root causes of global warming so to save Catholic doctrine. And refusal to sanction effective birth control simply maintains poor women as chattel: breeder stock that can never rise above their stations as baby machines. Nick Cohen excoriated the Pope for this in the Guardian:

The pope does not say that the poor must stay poor to show their gratitude to the almighty or for the sake of the environment. Rather, he ducks the question of what will happen as the ever-expanding populations of poor countries grow richer. Demand the promotion of birth control – not abortion or eugenics, just contraception – and you are “refusing to face” the world’s unequal distribution of wealth, he writes. End “the extreme and selective consumerism” of the rich world and – eureka! –“demographic growth is fully compatible with an integral and shared development”.

Everything about his argument is slippery. Even if rich countries are prepared to redistribute wealth to poor countries, I have never met a secular campaigner against poverty who does not believe that educating women and giving them control of their fertility is the best way to reduce poverty.

And as Pinker wrote in an email (quoted with permission):
But the solution to climate change is not to moralize from on high and implore people—particularly the poor people who he claims to sympathize with—to learn to be abstemious for the common good and do without central heating, electric lights, and efficient transport. Billions of people aren’t going to do that. Not even the Pope—especially not the Pope—is going to do that. The solution is economic and technological: a global carbon tax, and investment in the development of new energy technologies. The Pope shows no signs of acknowledging this, because it leaves him and his church no special role.
The issue of population growth, carbon taxes, and the like are totally ignored in a new opinion piece in the prestigious science journal Nature, “Faith and science can find common ground” by David Lodge, identified as “director of the University of Notre Dame Environmental Change Initiative, Indiana, and editor (with historian Christopher Hamlin) of Religion and the New Ecology (2006).” Notre Dame, of course, is a Catholic institution. Lodge is breathless with admiration of the Pope, admiring this so-called rapprochement between science and faith, and lauding Frances for saying that Catholics shouldn’t breed like rabbits:

In recent weeks, we have learned that Pope Francis enticed Cuban President Raúl Castro to consider a return to Catholicism, and has ended a dispute involving US nuns that will allow them to return to serving the poor free from the suspicion of heresy.

Perhaps most surprisingly, at least to this Protestant ecologist embedded for 30 years in a Roman Catholic university, the Pope has suggested that humans should not breed “like rabbits”, despite his church’s continued prohibition of birth control.

Pope Francis, after a visit to the largest Catholic nation in Asia, says Catholics may have a moral responsibility to limit the number of their children and need not reproduce “like rabbits.”

But the pope also reaffirmed the church’s ban on artificial means of birth control and said Catholics should practice “responsible parenting.”

That’s all Lodge has to say about population control, and he makes no attempt to relate it to global warming, the main topic of his piece. Instead, he repeatedly praises Frances for trying to bring together science and faith:

Pope Francis is clearly a man on a mission to shake things up. Could the world’s leading Catholic help to bridge the divide between science and the Protestant views that dominate the religious ‘anti-science’ movement? I think that he could.

. . . By framing protection of the environment as protecting human welfare, the Pope has linked the interests of groups that are often at odds. He offers some middle ground on which both sides of this polarized debate can meet and work towards a mutually desirable future.

Except, of course, for the pesky issues of overpopulation, carbon taxes, and alternative technologies.

Well, so be it. I suppose the Pope’s acknowledgment of anthropogenic global warming is a good thing, but of course the vast majority of climate scientists recognized that long ago. The Pope is simply admitting what we all know, and so any praise for him should be directed not at his prescience, but at the dubious assumption that people will actually pay attention to him because he’s the Pope.

In the end, though, Lodge’s article falls down for two reasons. First, he equates religiously based denial of global warming with “extreme environmentalism”, whatever that is. My emphasis in Lodge’s words below:

Such a compromise between the extremes of the religious and environmentalist positions could also help to defuse other sources of tension between faith and science. To many people, the two cannot be reconciled — so much so that when I tell people I am a biologist, believe in evolution and work on environmental issues, I am often told that I cannot be a Christian.

What, exactly, is the “environmentalist position” that should be compromised? That global warming is caused by humans and needs to be curbed? Is that “extreme”? Lodge doesn’t explain. This ridiculous equation is reflected in the article’s subtitle, “Pope Francis has found a meeting place for those with extreme religious and environmentalist stances, says David M. Lodge.”

And Lodge also—completely gratuitously—blames this polarization on the New Atheists, of course dragging the much-maligned Dawkins into the fray:

The same polarization [between faith and science] is urged by many prominent popularizers of science and the ‘New Atheists’ — with Richard Dawkins as their figurehead. Is it so surprising, then, that in the United States especially, atheism is over-represented among scientists, and that science–faith polarization is increasingly reflected in political and cultural discourse?

Well, Dr. Lodge, the secularization of scientists has nothing to do with the efforts of New Atheism, for that seculrization trend began decades ago and, in fact, the high rate of atheism among the U.S.’s most lauded scientists has held steady for over 100 years. It’s intellectually dishonest for Lodge to imply that the high rate of nonblief among scientists has anything to do with New Atheism.
Further, what New Atheists usually write about is the lack of evidence for the tenets of religious belief, something that happens to be true, and something that a scientific journal should agree with—if it must discuss the issue at all.  The polarization between faith and science is not a dubious claim of New Atheists: it happens to be a truth that reflects scientific versus religious “ways of knowing.” Scientists know—in the same provisonal way that scientists “know” anything—that climate change is due to human activity. Religious global-warming denialists claim (based on their unsupported ways of knowing) that climate change either doesn’t exist or reflects the End Times or God’s will. The Pope sides with science, but his compromise—the one approved by Lodge as uniting “extreme” religionists and environmentalists—is simply an ill-advised sop to faith.
h/t: Greg

Brutal mass slaughter of pilot whales by Faroe Islanders

Here’s another story about gratuitous animal slaughter.

Since at least the sixteenth century, Faroe Islanders (the islands are nominally independent but run largely by the Danish government) have participated in slaughtering whales, both long-finned pilot whales (Globicephala melas) and Atlantic white-sided dolphins (Lagenorhynchus acutus). The whales are herded and beached by boats, or dragged ashore from shallow waters by gaffing, and then killed. As Wikipedia describes:

Once ashore, the pilot whale is killed by cutting the dorsal area through to the spinal cord with a special whaling knife, a mønustingari (spinal cord cutter), and after cutting it, the whaler must make sure that the whale is dead, he can do this by touching the whales eye; before he cuts the neck open, so that as much blood as possible can run from the whale in order to get the best quality of meat. The neck is cut with agrindaknívur, but only after it has been killed. The mønustingari is a new invention which has been legal to use to kill pilot whales with since 2011, and since 1 May 2015 it is the only weapon allowed to slaughter a whale. The length of time it takes for a whale to die varies from a few seconds to a few minutes, with the average time being 30 seconds. Other observers complained that it took up to fifteen minutes for certain whales to die, they noted several cuts were sometimes made before a successful death and that some whales were not even killed properly until a vet finishes the job.

The whale meat has traditionally been used as a source of protein in this barren land, but that’s no longer necessary. Further, some nutritionists recommend that because of its high levels of mercury, the meat be avoided altogether or limited to one meal per month.  But this “cultural tradition,” an extraordinary brutal one, is outmoded. Take a look at the video below to see what it involves, and imagine the fear and pain suffered by these intelligent animals.

According to both the Independent and Sea Shepherd (the latter an anti-whaling organization) the slaughter this year, on July 23, destroyed about 250 pilot whales, with the killers guarded by the Danish Navy. Five members of the Sea Shepherd organization ran onto the beach to try to stop the slaughter; all were arrested and, according to a new Danish law, face up to two years in jail. Is that a fair sentence? Not at all; what’s unfair and unnecessary is the slaughter itself.

I’ve long admired the Danish people and their enlightened society, but I can’t countenance this slaughter, nor the apparent glee with which it’s conducted. I’m sorry, but some cultural traditions become outmoded, and I can’t help but feel that many of the people in the video below (taken by Sea Shepherd members) are actually feeling great glee when they herd, gaffe, and dispatch these wonderful beasts.

The result:


Whale hunters in a sea of red. Photo: Sea Shepherd/Eliza Muirhead

Armadillo 1 : Trigger happy fool 0

by Grania

In Texas, of course. Because when an armadillo crosses your path, the first thing a Texan thinks of is: shoot it three times.

CBCNews has a story on a man  who had to be airlifted to hospital after he fired a .38 revolver at an armadillo in his yard and the bullet ricocheted back to hit him in his face.

Nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) from via Wikimedia.

Nine-banded armadillo (Dasypus novemcinctus) from via Wikimedia.

Unfortunately the fate of the armadillo is unknown, for the sheriff on the scene couldn’t find any trace of it.

I hope the poor thing got away unscathed.

It’s worth noting the developmental reason why armadillo plates are so incredibly strong.  Wikipedia explains:

The armour is formed by plates of dermal bone covered in relatively small, overlapping epidermal scales called “scutes“, composed of bone with a covering of horn. Most species have rigid shields over the shoulders and hips, with a number of bands separated by flexible skin covering the back and flanks. Additional armour covers the top of the head, the upper parts of the limbs, and the tail.

Hat-tip: @OrAroundTen

Readers’ wildlife photographs

Reader Jacques Hausser from Switzerland always has lovely pictures of lepidopterans. The latest came with this note: “Here is my second batch of butterflies (including a moth, like the first one).” (The earlier batch of photos is here.)

Vanessa cardui (Nymphalidae). The painted lady (UK) or the Cosmopolitan (US) – a well earned name, since except for Southern America and Antarctica, it can be found on every continent. This is a migratory species. In Europe, successive generations spend the winter in Northern Africa, and in early spring they cross the Mediterannean and move North, adding further generations in the way. For example the individual shot in my garden the 30th of May was probably born in southern France. This spring migration can be very impressive, as the butterflies fly mostly at the level of the vegetation. A return migration was observed in the late summer, but as the returning flights are mostly at higher altitude (this was demonstrated using radar), it is usually not noticed.


 Lycaena virgaureae (Lycaenidae). The scarce copper. This splendid coloration denotes a male, while the female is brown-orange with dark spotting. It lives in meadows of mid-montain areas—in Switzerland from about 750 up to 1800 m.


Gonepteryx rhamni (Pieridae). The brimstone (the upper part of the wings is yellow). The strange morphology of its wings associated whith their coloration give it a leafy look, camouflaging them very well when resting in the vegetation. According to A. Hoskins, they are also excellent meteorologists:

“Brimstones are very adept at detecting changes in temperature, humidity and air pressure. At Crab Wood in March 2007, shortly after midday I watched 5 males actively investigating bramble bushes in a sunny glade. At first I thought they were searching for females, but it soon became clear that they were all looking for places to shelter, having detected an imminent change in the weather. One by one they settled under bramble leaves to roost. Minutes later the sunshine disappeared, clouds had rolled in, and rain was beginning to fall.”


This is one of my [JAC’s] favorite butterflies:

Melanargia galathea (Nymphalidae). The marbled white. Black and white elegance… One of the most frequent species in the natural meadows around my village, it’s called in French “le demi-deuil” = the half mourning.


Here’s a nice Batesian mimic:

Synanthedon spuleri. Yes, it is a Lepidopteran, family Sesiidae. Moths of this family are diurnal and more or less imitate wasps: their wings are for the most part lacking scales and therefore transparent. The caterpillar of this species either lives in galls produced by fungi or bores tunnels between healthy and rotten part of various diseased trees, in both cases feeding on parasitic fungi.


Tuesday: Hili dialogue

I have no news except I’ve finally unpacked from The Big Road Trip, and am writing talks for my upcoming trip to Poland, Sweden, and Atlanta (Sept. 22-Oct. 19). But meanwhile in Dobrzyn, Hili is still trying to garner knowledge (and use it to lose her faith) by assimilating it through book covers:

A: Hili, you are lying on “Pole-Catholic”.
Hili: But close to “The End of Faith”.

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In Polish:
Ja: Hili, leżysz na “Polaku katoliku”
Hili: Ale blisko “Końca wiary”.

God’s plan revealed at last

. . . and in a comic strip of all places! God has chosen to reveal His long-enigmatic plan in the latest edition of Pie Comic, by John McNamee.  And it makes about as much sense as we thought all along.


Isn’t it great to see comics (even though they’re not in the daily papers) be so strident?

h/t: Diane G

Steve Pinker reviews Faith versus Fact

In the latest issue of Current Biology, Steve Pinker has written a longish review (2 pages) of Faith versus Fact, and it’s free online (pdf at the link).  His review is called “The untenability of faitheism,” a title I like a lot. You can read it for yourself, but I’ll give two brief excerpts. The first shows Steve’s frequent use of tropes from popular culture.

The term faitheism was coined by Jerry Coyne, a Drosophila biologist who made major contributions to our understanding of speciation before becoming a prolific essayist, blogger and a vociferous public defender of the modern synthesis in evolutionary biology. (How vociferous? His blog is called ‘whyevolutionistrue’.) His latest book, Faith Versus Fact, is intended not to pile on the arguments for atheism but to advance the debate into its next round. It is a brief against the faitheists — scientists and religionists alike — who advocate a make-nice accommodation between science and religion. As with Michael Corleone’s offer to Nevada Senator Pat Geary in The Godfather Part II, Coyne’s offer to religion on the part of science is this: Nothing.

Now I didn’t coyne the term “faitheism”, as I recall: it was the winner in a contest I devised to invent a word that referred to atheists who are soft on religion; and I can’t remember who won. But I’m glad it’s become a part of the science/religion discourse.

Steve has one minor plaint, but that’s okay, as is the use of the term “bl*g” to refer to this site (it’s used twice in the paragraph above and once below!). I forgive him these trespasses because he disarms the “preaching-to-the-choir” accusation, and because his review is favorable:

In his book, Coyne has examined every talking point in the New Atheism debate but one: the allegedly shrill, militant, extremist, fundamentalist tone of the anti-God squad. Here he leads by example. Faith Versus Fact is unquestionably partisan, but its tone is matter-of-fact, and the offense that its targets will surely take will come from the force of his arguments rather than any ridicule or cheap shots. Indeed, my only real criticism of the book is that it has been stripped of the sass and wit that enliven his blog whyevolutionistrue. Nonetheless, Faith Versus Fact is clear and gripping, and should be read by anyone interested in the tension between science and religion. By meeting the claims of the faitheists and accommodationists head-on, Coyne shows that in this debate the two sides aren’t preaching to their choirs or talking past each other, and that the truth does not always fall halfway between two extremes.

More Catholic insanity: organ donation = euthanasia

Reader Pliny the in Between sent me a link to this article, which I thought worth mentioning because of its unusual stance—a stance that, I realized, comes directly from Catholic Church’s uniform opposition to assisted dying. The upshot of the article, which comes from the “Pro-Life Healthcare Alliance“, is that we should not donate organs after we are declared brain-dead.

As you can see from the list of committee members at the bottom (and from my further investigations), the members are largely, if not wholly, Catholic.  This makes me fairly certain that the “no organ donation” slant comes from the religious view that such donations, which of course cause the “death” of the rest of the body when the brain is already dead, are a prohibited form of euthanasia.  Reader Pliny added this note with the link:

In your copious spare time, this article is worth skimming as an example of lying for Jesus.  The author’s horror stories reveal a deep lack of knowledge regarding the legal definitions of brain death.  None of the pseudo-patients she describes would have satisfied brain death criteria.  I’m thinking about writing something up about this topic.

I’ll have a say here as well. The article in question is called “Organ donation refusal, Q&A” by Julie Grimstad, the Executive Director of “Life Is Worth Living, Inc.”, a Catholic pro-life organization which opposes not only abortion, but assisted dying, which they call “euthanasia.” Her piece makes the following four points. I emphasize, though, that I am not a doctor, and though I’ve done my best to educate myself and pass that along, I may have made some errors. Readers are invited to correct any that they find.

1. There are dangers in donating an organ, like a kidney, to help a relative or a stranger.  Here’s how they scare you out of that:

Single kidney donation is the most frequent “living donor” procedure. Other organs that may be taken are one of the two lobes of the liver, a lung or part of a lung, part of the pancreas, or part of the intestines. The donor faces the risk of an unnecessary major surgical procedure and recovery. Sometimes there are adverse psychological outcomes or other consequences such as reduced function, disability, or problems getting medical insurance coverage at the same level and rate as previously. A small percentage of “living donors” die as a result of donation. All of these risks must be weighed along with the benefit the donated organ may be (no guarantee here either) to the organ recipient.

Note that the altruistic aspect of this procedure is not mentioned at all—only the risks to the donor (which are usually minimal).

2. “Brain death,” the usual criterion for determining death, and how death is declared, doesn’t mean that the patient is really “dead.” This depends on redefining death as the cessation of all physiological functions, even if the patient stands no chance of recovering, much less regaining consciousness. Their take:

Are organ donors certainly dead before their organs are removed?

The simple answer is “no.” Before organ transplantation was possible, physicians cautiously determined death, based on irreversible cessation of both cardiac and respiratory functions, in order not to treat the living as dead. Today, “brain death” is declared while a patient still has a beating heart and is breathing (albeit with the aid of a ventilator) because removal of vital organs must be done before they begin to deteriorate due to loss of blood circulation. Vital organs are useless if physicians wait to remove them until they are certain the patient is dead.

Tissues (such as bone, skin, tendons, cartilage, connective tissue, corneas, and heart valves) do not require continuous circulation of blood to remain useful for purposes of transplantation. Therefore, tissues may be taken up to several hours after death is certain.

I discussed these issues with my own doctor, Alex Lickerman, who told me several things about brain death. What that means is death of the brainstem, usually caused by head trauma. When the brainstem is destroyed, the underlying process has also usually destroyed the brain tissue above it, usually due to massive head trauma or vascular occlusion.

A defunct brainstem destroys the nerves that keep the heart beating and the lungs breathing (there is occasionally some endogenous heart rhythm caused by the heart’s own pacemaker). In such cases, patients are kept alive with a ventilator. (The definition of brain death varies among U.S. states.)

Because of the near-impossibility of someone recovering whose brainstem is dead, but also the ability of doctors to keep circulation and respiration going with ventilators and other means, the organs can still remain viable, and so can be used for donation. Waiting until all the organs die, which could take weeks, will make them useless for donation. (Donated organs include corneas, hearts, livers, pancreases, kidneys, and lungs.) Donors are typically young people with healthy organs who have suffered brainstem death due to head trauma (motorcycle accidents are a typical cause).

Doctors have several ways to test for brainstem death. Here are some common ones. (For these and others, see the Massachusetts General Hospital Guide to declaring brainstem death, or the American Academy of Neurology’s (AAN) guidelines, both of which show how seriously doctors take this issue.)

a. Lack of oculocephalic reflex. With the patient’s eyes held open, the head is turned rapidly to the side. If the brainstem is functional, the eyes will not turn with the head, but remain looking forward. The failure to see this, so that the eyes turn with the head, is a good indication of brainstem death, and doesn’t depend on consciousness.  Also, pupils will not respond to a bright light shined in the eye if the brainstem is dead.

b. Touch a Q-tip to the cornea.  The patient will not blink if the brainstem is dead. This is a reflex, not a conscious act.

c. Apnea testing. Turn off the ventilator. If the patient stops breathing without mechanical aid, the brainstem is dead.

d. EEG shows no electrical activity in the brain as a whole. 

There are other criteria as well. Although there may be very rare cases of patients recovering if they fail these tests, Alex doesn’t know of any, and I deeply suspect the two cases cited in the article.

It is NOT the case, despite what the article implies, that doctors are eager to declare patients dead so their organs can be harvested. ER doctors have no incentive to rush the patient to transplant surgeons. Rather, their mission is to help the patient and to deal with the family and with the patient’s or medical guardian’s wishes—should those be recorded.

Notice that the article redefines “death” not as “brainstem death” but as “organ death.” This means, of course, that no organs can be harvested under this definition:

The vast majority of organs for transplant are taken from patients who have been declared dead. A declaration of death does not always mean that the patient is certainly dead. Morally, organs and tissues may be taken from Patient A only after death is certain. (This “dead donor rule” is one of the basic ethical principles guiding organ donation.)

The article also misleadingly cites a report from a Committee at Harvard Medical School:

The insurmountable moral and legal problem is that stripping living patients of their organs is murder.

Yes, and doctors agree with that in general, but with the caveat that “living patients” are those with living brainstems. One exception is the existence of “persistent vegetative states,” in which there are signs of “arousal,” like the eyes being open but no sign of consciousness. Doctors can remove organs in such a state, but ONLY if the patient or the patient’s medical guardian has declared in advance that the patient does not want to be kept alive in such a condition.

4. Finally, the article claims that some patients declared dead have apparently recovered. Two cases are cited.

The first is that of Zack Dunlap, a 21 year old man who suffered brain trauma when his off-road bike rolled over. In this case, the patient was declared dead not using the criteria above, but via a PET scan, which measures metabolic activity in the brain via glucose uptake. As Steve Novella wrote on the Neurologica Blog, this is not a normal nor accurately calibrated way of determining brainstem death, and there is no case in which a PET scan has been independently tested to show that its results correlate highly with brainstem death. Novella argues that the declaration of brain death here could have also been subject to errors:

To summarize – in this case the clinical determination of brain death was made too early to be definitive. The only confirmatory test that was mentioned, the PET scan, is subject to technical errors that could have erroneously resulted in the absence of any signal. In this type of case (especially considering the age of the person) my personal recommendation would have been to either wait a couple of days after the edema mostly resolved, or to do more definitive confirmatory tests, like an angiogram for cerebral blood flow. I suspect that the patient was not thoroughly examined because the doctors were relying upon the PET scan, which was very likely in error. (Relying upon a false test always causes problems.)

The second case was that of 17-year-old Steven Thorpe, a British boy who suffered head injuries in a car accident. He was declared brain dead by four doctors, but another detected faint brain activity, and he eventually recovered. I can’t find much information about how brain death was determined, except that the doctors relied on CT scans, which aren’t designated by either the Massachusetts General or AAN’s guidelines as ways to determine brain death. We must remember, however, that those checklists may not be 100% infallible, though Alex Lickerman was unaware of anyone declared brain dead by conventional procedures having recovered. Very rare exceptions might occur.

The upshot of the article is given at its end:

Should I refuse to be an organ donor?

Yes, for the reasons stated above and because the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act (UAGA), as revised in 2006 and since adopted by most states, allows for patients who have never consented to be organ donors to be considered “prospective” donors unless they explicitly refuse. This means, if you have not explicitly refused to be an organ donor, you may be subjected to potentially harmful measures done solely to preserve your organs for transplant or to determine if you are “brain dead.” These things can be done without your family’s knowledge or permission. Your family may be left “in the dark” until asked for your organs.

The PHA suggests you carry an Organ Donor Refusal card at all times.

This, however, misrepresents the UAGA, at least if Wikipedia is correct, which describes who must make the decision to donate a patient’s organs:

UAGA governs organ donations for the purpose of transplantation, and it also governs the making of anatomical gifts of one’s cadaver to be dissected in the study of medicine. The law prescribes the forms by which such gifts can be made. It also provides that in the absence of such a document, a surviving spouse, or if there is no spouse, a list of specific relatives in order of preference, can make the gift. It also seeks to limit the liability of health care providers who act on good faith representations that a deceased patient meant to make an anatomical gift. The act also prohibits trafficking and trafficking in human organs for profit from donations for transplant or therapy.

In other words, the patient’s wishes (in a living will or on a driver’s license), or the expression of a medical guardian who has discussed the patient’s wishes (and those wishes are met in a given case), can lead to organ donation.

What should you do?

The article by Julie Grimstad is a pastiche of misrepresentations, all motivated by the religious notion that donating organs is a form of assisted suicide.  It neglects the fact that living donors save lives, often with minimal risk to themselves, and especially that families may feel that a patient who cannot recover can help save other people’s lives by donating organs—something that has been very comforting to many families.

If you wish to participate in organ donation, it’s important to have a “living will” that specifies what measures should be taken to preserve your life if you’re brainstem dead or in a persistent vegetative state, and to specify in both that document and on your driver’s license that you want to donate organs in such a condition. You should also have discussed your wishes with a medical guardian (you can specify this in your will), who can act on your behalf when you no longer can. I have done all this, and would be happy to donate my organs to save other people’s lives.

The only people who don’t are those religionists who see organ donation as a form of murder, which is unconscionable given the numerous safeguards used by doctors to determine who can be a donor. And, of course, there are those who think that if you donate organs, you’ll show up in Heaven minus a kidney or lungs.


To finish, here’s the “about” statement of the Pro-Life Healthcare Alliance and and list of their committee members. Pro-Life Healthcare alliance:

The Pro-life Healthcare Alliance was formed in the summer of 2012 as a non-denominational, faith-based program of Human Life Alliance.

All of our efforts are directed toward renewing reverence for life within healthcare.

The Pro-life Healthcare Alliance (PHA) actively shares faith-inspired principles that guide the care, support, and protection of the life and dignity of all human beings, including those who are preborn. The PHA provides reliable pro-life information about medical decision making and the challenges facing pro-life healthcare providers and patients. Our speakers are willing to go anywhere they are invited.

We are in the process of establishing a support network of healthcare providers and organizations who subscribe to the pro-life healthcare philosophy. We seek to work together to pool our resources and courageously oppose imposed death, help vulnerable patients and their families, and renew reverence for life within healthcare and society.

PHA is led by a committee of pro-life leaders from all spheres of the pro-life movement. We invite you to join us in a mutually-supportive mission that honors the Creator of all life and renews the culture of life in healthcare.

Working Committee Members

Ralph Capone, MD, Internist, Hospice Medical Director, palliative care consultant and co-founder of the Saint Gianna Sodality for the Sanctity of Human Life, Our Lady of Grace Parish, Greensburg, PA, USA

Rey Flores, Director of Outreach, American Life League

Julie Grimstad, Exec. Dir., Life is Worth Living, Inc.

Mary Kellett, Exec. Dir., Prenatal Partners for Life

Brian J. Kopp, DPM, Podiatrist in Johnstown PA, and Faith Community Laison for Catholic Hospice of Greensburg, PA

Cristen Krebs, DNP, Dir., Catholic Hospice of Pittsburgh

Ann Olson, Education Dir., Human Life Alliance

Alex Schadenberg, Exec. Dir., Euthanasia Prevention Coalition

Jo Tolck, Exec. Dir., Human Life Alliance


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