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Sunday, March 20, 2005

The Schiavo Affair: extremely mixed emotions about an extremely polarizing case that has, at the root of it, an extremely difficult moral dilemma...

Firstly, Happy New Year to all Neo-Pagans and other religions (and there are many) who take the Vernal Equinox as the first day of the New Year.

To frame this whole post very carefully, I want to make sure you understand my personal philosophy by which I conduct my life. As far as anything resembling a religious philosophy I follow, the closest thing to illustrate where I am is this: I am a thelemite. I take great pains to use the lower-case "t" here, because unlike the current incarnation of the Ordo Templi Orientis, I do not consider thelema a religion.

Aleister Crowley was not the first person to describe this "current" of philosophical can go back as far as Lao Tzu and find thelemic strains of thought in the Dao Deh Jing. The name was given to this "current" by Francois Rabelais, and used in his epic satiric novel "Gargantua." There is a definite thelemic flavor to the philosophical writings of John Locke, and of the writings of John Stuart Mill and his wife and fellow philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill. The writings of Ayn Rand and her disciples could be somewhat construed as thelemic but some of the weirder quirks of Rand's viewpoints (she did not believe in the equality of men and women, she saw aesthetics as a philosophical branch that could be processed objectively, etc.) and the actual way she ran her "collective" suggests that she really doesn't belong under the category.

The "source document" of thelema as we know it is Liber AL Vel Legis, also known as Liber 220, known informally as The Book of the Law. The "orthodox Thelemic" (and by orthodox I mean current Caliphate OTO, The Thelemic Order of the Golden Dawn, etc.) view is that it is received scripture and cannot be changed "even in the style of the letter," nor can it be subjected to "higher criticism." Furthermore, orthodox Thelemism gives as the origin of the book the dictation of a supernatural, non-corporeal being identified as Aiwaz. I think the origin of the book is Aleister Crowley's own subconscious/superconscious, not anything external to him, and that what was best and brightest within him projected itself in the writing of it. As of April 10th, it will be 101 years since Crowley finished the book.

I cannot hold to The Book of the Law with any sort of belief in its inerrancy or supernatural origin. It is the utterance of the subconscious/superconscious of one man, expressing sentiments that the man himself did not entirely hold consciously in his whole lifetime and certainly did not at the time.

The Book of the Law can be summed up very succintly in a series of postulates. However, here is a link to the (short) book on the Web so that you can read it for yourself.

Postulate 1: Every man and every woman is an individual, and their birthright is respect.

Postulate 2: There is no such thing as a "master" or "inferior" being by dint of their birth. All are equal regardless of race, gender and so forth.

Postulate 3: As sovereign, equal individuals, every man and every woman is accorded to live their lives according to their own True Will, a personal "Tao" that each individual must find and flow with for themselves. Nobody can show you that True Will, be it human or some sort of Different Intelligence. It is strictly your own affair. No True Will, if adhered to properly, can harm another sovereign, equal, individual. However, since the task of finding and doing one's True Will is often quite difficult, a correlary must be added: Unless it harm Another, find and do your True Will. Neo-Pagans use the poetic, ancient sounding turn of phrase; "An it harm none, do what ye Will." In the Book of the Law it is phrased: (Condensing from several verses in chapter 1) "Do what thou Wilt shall be the whole of the Law....Love is the Law, Love under Will...Thou hast no right but to do thy Will."

Postulate 4: Conditions are changing. For several thousand years, the concept of the Angry Father God, the Suffering Intermediary God, an unbending, detailed moral code, and the subjection of women over men has dominated spirituality. In the past few hundred years, maybe as early as the Renaissance, maybe as late as the Spring Equinox of 1904 of the Common Era, a very strong paradigm shift occured, and this spiritual model is no longer workable under the new paradigm. In its place is a concept of humanity as finally adult for the first time in its evolution, neither subject to a Nurturing Mother Goddess or an Angry Father God. Every aspect of spirituality must be reexamined under these new conditions. No sacred cows should be spared. Everything must be reexamined, applying the method of science to the aims of religion.

Postulate 5: The Angry Father God, Patriarchy, spiritual Aristocracy, and all the other elements of the Old Paradigm will not simply wither away without a fight. Hence the observation of religious fundamentalism in ascendancy and in conflict with competing religious fundamentalisms in modern times. Crowley believed this conflict would be a more-or-less permanent feature of the current paradigm, and only with the advent of the next Aeon in a future time would the Old Paradigm finally fall. He further believed that the primary feature of the current Aeon (current Paradigm, current Zeitgeist) would be this conflict, and the conflict could possibly bring on a new Dark Age of primitivism and superstition. Only those who understood the conditions and could live their lives in terms of the current Paradigm would be able to preserve the knowledge and wisdom of previous Aeons for the future time when the Old Paradigm would finally fall.

Postulate 6: The correct course of action in the midst of this turbulent time period is to live one's life according to one's True Will as best you understand it, staying aloof from the death throes of the Old Paradigm. There is a specific injunction against proselytizing, something understandable when you consider that Crowley's parents were devout Plymouth Brethren Protestant Christians, practicing a severe form of Protestant Christian Fundamentalism dating back to the Puritan Fathers. The religious conflict between Crowley and his parents is the true source of his being convinced he was the Antichrist of the New Testament Book of Revelation...his mother would often refer to him as "The Beast." The facts of Crowley's life and death suggest that neither Crowley nor his mother were correct in identifying him thusly.

Anyway, with all that out of the way, let's look at the intractable dilemma of the Terri Schiavo case.

In February, 1990, Terri Schiavo suffered a horrible, profound heart attack, resulting in the necrosis of huge portions of her brain. Most of her Cerebrum is destroyed, replaced with huge fluid-filled cavities. However, her brainstem and other aspects of her autonomous nervous system are left intact. MRIs of Ms. Schiavo's brain resemble that of late-stage Alzheimer's patients, only without the characteristic "plaques and tangles" that are the hallmarks of that disease. For 15 years, Ms. Schiavo has been in a state of living death: what doctors refer to as a "persistent vegetative state." She has been kept alive with food given through intravenous and intragastric means. She is not on a respirator.

The heart attack apparently was brought on by Ms. Schiavo's chronic eating disorders. She apparently had Bulimia and drank huge quantities of water and Iced Tea in order to keep her stomach full to prevent the consumption of other, more caloric substances. She also would force herself to vomit after eating solid food. This eating disorder caused a precipitous drop in blood potassium, a mineral necessary for the correct functioning of the heart. This is a fact in the case that is often lost in the noise of other arguments. The ultimate cause of Ms. Schiavo's horrible predicament is an undiagnosed case of Bulimia, precipitated probably by pressure from both her family's side and her husband's side for Ms. Sciavo to keep thin and "pretty." Certainly from the family's side, the pressure probably started in early childhood.

Another element of this is the fact that Ms. Schiavo did not have any sort of Advance Directives, more commonly known as a "Living Will," to guide doctors and family members in making health care decisions for her. This is the ultimate source of the current tragedy which has the hapless Schiavo as a living shuttlecock in a game of legal badminton between her parents and her husband. Gentle reader, if you care about your family and care about your desires in a similar situation being carried out, you owe it to yourself to draw up Advance Directives that satisfy the laws of the State you live in if you live in the US, the Province you live in if you live in Canada, or the country you live in if you live elsewhere. A very thorough yet concise fact sheet for California is available here.

Anyway, there is no way of knowing, with any level of certainty, what Ms. Schiavo's wishes are regarding whether it is her Will to remain alive in the state she's in or whether she should be allowed to die. Her parents, and a strange set of bedfellows in the political conservative, religious conservative and disabled rights movement believe she should continue to be fed and cared for. Obviously these people in this weird coalition have their own individual axes to grind regarding the Schiavo case: some are against euthanasia, some are worried that a "slippery slope" is developing which will allow the disabled to be murdered out of considerations of convenience and economics. Her husband asserts that Ms. Schiavo had verbally, on numerous occasions, communicated that she did not want to live under these circumstances. However, without Advance Directives, it is impossible to know whether this is true or whether Mr. Schiavo just wants to have "closure" in the situation with his wife, damn the circumstances.

As a person who is mildly chronically disabled thanks to the remaining effects of Chronic Fatigue Immune Dysfunction Syndrome I suffered from 1991 to 1995, and who has other mild disabilities from other sources (I'm extremely nearsighted and have Math-related learning disabilities) I am naturally somewhat sympathetic to the arguments of Not Dead Yet and other disability-rights groups who are on the side of Schiavo's parents. However, there is quite a bit of medical information which suggests that Schiavo is not conscious, although reflexively responsive in a superficial way.

Ultimately, however, there is no way to know with any certainty whether or not she thinks, feels, can experience pain, etc.

As a thelemite, I cannot support either side. Both sides of the argument tend to presume to know Ms. Schiavo's True Will better than she does...the reason why I do not believe in the "Golden Rule," by the way. Ms. Schiavo, in her condition, cannot communicate. BUT WHAT TO DO IN THIS SITUATION? WHAT TO DO????

I personally would not want the government stepping in, in such a situation, and mandating that I be maintained indefinitely until my "natural death." However, I personally would not want the government pulling the plug if there was any chance I could recover, or simply for economic expediency's sake. So I cannot support any sort of governmental meddling on either side. However, I cannot support the cause of either Schiavo's parents or of her husband. Both have suspect motives. Both have axes to grind. Neither side has clean hands.

What to do?

I would say the balance is tilted, in my opinion, in favor of keeping her fed and watered until the rest of her brain and the mechanisms of her body give out. Where there is a reasonable doubt, or even an unreasonable doubt, I have to say that rendering care is the correct side of the debate.

However, this does not mean I support the anti-Choice side of the greater debate. Crowley once tried to simplify the message of Liber AL in a document called Liber OZ. This document was written in words of only one syllable, with an eye towards even the least schooled among us understanding it. However, the document only served to muddy the waters even more in practice, because the result is quite harsh-sounding when taken as a whole. However, there is a very unequivocal statement there which sums up my view on the subject as a whole:

Man has the right to live by his own die when and how he will.

Further, I do not believe that an "unborn baby" is a life with a sovereign Will yet. The classical Jewish concept of when life begins has life beginning when the baby draws their first breath. "And G_d breathed into Adam's nostrils, and he became a living soul." Placing life as beginning at conception does violence to the concept of human life being inextricable with human volition. You are in danger of doing the same even if you choose "quickening" or any other point on the gestational scale as the point where life begins, because that "life" is maintained by the body of the mother until and unless the "life" either is born vaginally or by Caesarian section. Any premature baby, no matter how young, has to breathe on their own after leaving the womb, at least until the ventilator can be attached. There is recent medical documentation that suggests that the results of taking heroic measures on behalf of very early preemies has very questionable results from a "quality of life" standpoint.

The moral to this horrible tale of human suffering is this: MAKE SURE YOU HAVE WRITTEN ADVANCE DIRECTIVE DOCUMENTS. Legal authorities suggest storing them in a safe-deposit box. As for myself, I intend to make my Will known in another way: by distributively storing facsimilies of the documents with multiple individuals, and also on the Internet in scanned .PNG format. Remaining members of my family and trusted friends will get copies, and failing all those potential sources of the legal documents to make my wishes known, the documents will be available on the Internet, as close as a Google search for them, in multiple physical locations. Somehow or another, if I should find myself in such a situation, my wishes cannot help but be known this way.

Unfortunately my true wishes on the matter could not be carried out: if in poor Ms. Schiavo's situation, I would hope that someone would take a .357 Magnum, a .45, or any other sufficiently powerful firearm, and BLOW MY HEAD TO KINGDOM COME and release me to whatever happens next after death. Alas, a person carrying out my Will in this situation would be culpable for at least manslaughter if not Murder One. If in the future there is a law allowing the use of a lethal dose of some sort of narcotic or whatever in a situation where advance directives which specifically specify it can be legally followed, then yeah, do that. Death by OD is infinitely preferable to a slow death from starvation and dehydration, particularly if a person in a Persistent Vegetative State can feel physical pain and suffer. If such a law is never enacted, then I suppose death by starvation and dehydration is better than an indefinite "life" in limbo, trapped in a body that physically functions but with a mind that cannot.

Discussion on the Web about the Schiavo case:

Attempting to remain neutral:
Abstract Appeal: Terri Schavo Information Page

Pro-termination of nutrition:
RangelMD.Com: A Long Slow Death In Florida
Majikthise's Blog: Lies Terri Schiavo's Parents Told Me

Anti-termination of nutrition:
Beep's Journal: Unusual These Days For Me To Be On The Republican Side...
Penraker: Medical Experts Talk About Terri Schiavo Case

There are tons of others, but I chose two of the most eloquent and expressive opinions from both sides.