Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Denial of food, fluids is wrong regardless of PVS

Pro-life philosopher Christopher Tollefson draws two lessons from the case of Rom Houben, who was misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) for 23 years before doctors found out he was conscious all along.

First, a general observation: "Very often, disabled persons are capable of many more substantive opportunities for human fulfillment than we are initially inclined to believe. This is a point that disability activists have been making for many years, and it reminds us that many of the limitations that the disabled encounter are a result of our own misconceptions, misunderstandings, and failures of imagination and creativity."

More specifically, we have come to realize that "some ... allegedly persistent vegetative state (PVS) patients are in reality misdiagnosed, and are either currently conscious or capable of a fuller recovery than is often asserted to be possible."

Second, a moral point: "The case against withdrawing artificial nutrition and hydration (ANH) from patients in a PVS state does not, ultimately, rest on the possibility of an error in diagnosis. While, for example, the tragedy of the end of Terri Schiavo's life would be compounded by the discovery that she had indeed been conscious, or capable of consciousness, the wrong that was done to her is not mitigated by consciousness's absence."

The question is whether a patient in a PVS is valuable and deserving of the same kind of care and respect due to the rest of us. Because our basic dignity is not dependent on mental or physical capacities that come and go, the answer is yes.