Human Exceptionalism

“Vegetative” Patient May Have Awareness

Sophisticated brain scans of a woman diagnosed to be in a persistent vegetative state has revealed startling levels of activity. Indeed, it may indicate that she is aware.

The description of the patient in question is startlingly similar to Terri Schiavo: “Scientists don’t even agree on whether the woman had some real awareness–she seemed to follow, mentally, certain commands–or if her brain was responding more automatically to speech.”

And here is some more important information from the story: “First, they checked that she could process speech. Upon being told ‘there was milk and sugar in the coffee,’ the fMRI showed brain regions reacting the same in the woman and in healthy volunteers.

“Then came the big test. Owen told the woman to perform a mental task–to imagine herself playing tennis and walking through her house. Motor-control regions of her brain lit up like they did in the healthy people he compared with her.”

These were the very kinds of tests that the Schindlers begged Judge Greer to permit to be given to Terri Schiavo, in the hope that a scan that measured function, would demonstrate more activity than tests that had been done measuring brain structure. Even though the tests would have caused her no possible harm, and might have found she had more awareness than most of the experts thought, Greer refused. And Terri was dehydrated to death.

Caveat: We must be very careful here. One apparently aware vegetative patient does not mean that other or all such patients are similarly cognitive. But it seems to me that this case provides a very urgent reason to find out, and find out fast. People are being dehydrated to death as you read these words because they are deemed non persons due to perceived permanent loss of any awareness. If that isn’t so, if many or most of these people are aware, we had better find out.

Postscript: Oh, and here’s a small prediction: If we do find out that many PVS patients are actually aware, look for dehydration advocates to claim that the patients’ awareness provides an even more urgent reason to go forward with dehydrations, e.g., in order to put them out of the misery of being profoundly disabled.