Human Exceptionalism

Rom Houben: “The Long Awakening” and Continued Angst About Terri Schiavo

I have an article in the current Weekly Standard on the Rom  Houben case. I find it fascinating that Terri Schiavo–and what happened to her–is the subtext of the entire event. From my article:

The case of Terri Schiavo–who died five years ago next March, deprived for nearly two weeks of food and water, even the balm of ice chips–continues to prick consciences. That may be one reason the case of Rom Houben, a Belgian man who was misdiagnosed for 23 years as being in a persistent vegetative state, is now receiving international attention.

When Houben was injured and misdiagnosed, the idea of dehydrating him was unthinkable.  No more:

During the years that Houben was thought unconscious, society changed. Bioethicists nudged medicine away from the Hippocratic model and toward “quality of life” judgmentalism. Today, when a patient is diagnosed as persistently unconscious or minimally aware, doctors, social workers, and bioethicists often recommend that life-sustaining treatment–including sustenance delivered through a tube–be withdrawn, sometimes days or weeks after the injury.

I discuss the notorious Haleigh Poutre case, (about which I wrote more extensively here),  the little girl who would have been dehydrated but for the time it took to get the Massachusetts Supreme Court’s approval, allowing her the time to wake up. I discuss the controversy over whether he is not actually communicating.  And I point out something that I think is just beneath the surface of the entire discussion:

In any case, why the sour response to a good news story? It is hard to shake the feeling that the emotional crosscurrents stirred by Terri Schiavo have been stirred again. Time reported that Schiavo-type “legal fights are likely to become more common as classifications of brain-injury severity are revised.” According to ABC, Schiavo’s family “felt both heartbreak and vindication” about the story.

And so, it seems, Terri Schiavo remains very much with us. Indeed, every time we hear about the newest “miraculous” awakening, we find ourselves wrestling again with the moral import of all that happened; haunted it seems, by her beautifully smiling face.


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