Human Exceptionalism

Using Unconscious Patients as So Many Organ Farms

The importance of accepting the intrinsic value of human life cuts across almost every major bioethical issue facing society today. In this San Francisco Chronicle column, I describe how our most vulnerable brothers and sisters–those diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state–are being looked upon increasingly by many bioethicists as so many organ farms or guinea pigs for use in medical experimentation. “Those we would exploit,” I write, “we must first dehumanize.” A favored approach to dehumanizing the unconscious is to redefine them as dead. I envision the kind of scenario that this kind of advocacy–which appears in the world’s most respected medical and bioethics journals–could lead.

“Consider the kind of scenario this advocacy contemplates: Alice, a woman in her late 20s, nearly drowns. Aggressive CPR restarts her heart but she remains unresponsive for six months. Doctors tell her husband Jack she is in a persistent vegetative state–and although the diagnosis is difficult to make with certainty and is often wrong–they conclude she will never awaken.

“Since the law now considers a persistent vegetative state the same as being dead, the state issues a death certificate. Jack assures doctors that Alice wanted her body used for science if she ever died or became profoundly incapacitated. Accordingly, her ‘breathing cadaver’ is transferred from a nursing home to a major organ transplant center. Soon, her kidneys are removed for transplantation into renal patients. Doctors then implant pig kidneys. Alice survives the surgery and continues to breathe on her own. She lives for years in isolation as researchers continually test for dangerous porcine viral infections. When the experiment concludes, Alice is lethally injected — which is not considered euthanasia because she is already legally dead — and her remains are cremated.”

It’s an ugly, but no longer unthinkable, scenario. To avoid this unethical and immoral exploitation of the most vulnerable among us, we must cling to the crucial understanding that human life matters.

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