Saturday, March 26, 2005


I initially resisted the temptation to write about the Terri Schiavo case because only a small minority wants to keep her body alive. However, I still haven't heard the case of the majority spelled out in any detail.

For the record, it has been consistently demonstrated in the 10 legal cases on this issue that Terri Schiavo is completely brain-dead. Her brain has virtually liquefied. There is no hope of her ever regaining consciousness, with or without impaired capacity. The medical case is not at issue here.

Some ask what the harm is in letting the family keep Terri alive. Terri can't feel any pain or anguish, and she isn't aware that she's being a burden on the living, so why not give custody of Terri to her parents?

I've devised a few thought experiments that I think will illuminate the real issues at stake here.

  1. Suppose that a loved one is injured in an accident and becomes brain-dead. The accident victim never expressed any views on the issue of indefinite life support. However, you don't believe your loved one is truly alive anymore, and you give the order to discontinue life support for the body.

    Is it acceptable that someone else might then take custody of the body over your objections? Would it be appropriate for someone else to take that body and keep it alive indefinitely? Can they put it on display? What would it be like to have other people (perhaps people you don't know) toying with the remains of your loved one as if it were a flesh and blood wax replica?

  2. Suppose that we could keep human bodies on life support without the head being present (this may even be possible). Is it appropriate to keep a corpse alive in this manner? What purposes might justify such action? Organ banks? Perhaps artificial re-animation. We might one day learn how to build some sort of artificial head with a neural-link computer that would reactivate the body and give it consciousness again. It wouldn't have the experiences or personality of the original human, but it would be living, thinking person again.

  3. If we could re-animate dead people, what rights should a person have to reactivate someone they are not related to?

The Schiavo case is really a question of what is appropriate public access to our remains after we die.

Once dead, I really shouldn't care what happens to my body. However, I think it would be outrageous for someone to use my body in a way that causes pain or anguish to the people I care for most. I strongly object to the possibility that someone could forcibly take custody of my body from my wife after my brain died. I would consider such a seizure to be equivalent to graveyard desecration.

(Er... just in case this comes up, I would also strongly object to the possibility of having my body be re-animated to perform tasks that I would have opposed while alive.)

1 comment:

Bob Mottram said...

A medical technology advances I think more cases like this will come up, since it will be possible to sustain people in a semi-alive condition where previously they would just have died.

I don't know anything about this particular case, but in general I think it's unethical to keep people alive who are actually "brain dead" unless its for temporary organ transplantation purposes. What constitutes "alive" or "dead" isn't a clear cut issue though and even experts can't agree on an exact definition. For instance, is someone who has been in a coma for a long time "dead"? There are rare cases where people have remained in a coma for years and then woken up. There are also cases of "locked in" syndrome, where damage to the basal ganglia causes total paralysis of the entire body, but nevertheless the person remains completely conscious, although they can't communicate in any way with the outside world.