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Euthanasia in Cases of a Persistent Vegetative State

Comment by Maynard S. Clark (2 Apr 2000):

The issue of prolonging life is a very complex one, and this issue is brought up in a number of ethical thinkers in the vegetarian movement, most notably Dr. Peter Singer at the Princeton Center for Bioethics (New Jersey). Many handicapped, senior rights, and prolife groups have picketed Singer at Princeton (and elsewhere) and even at Harvard Medical School (where I heard him several weeks ago).

As you probably know, even the diagnosis of persistent vegetative state is a difficult one and the brain injury literature is full of information on its frequent misdiagnosis.

Almost every person who has sustained a severe brain injury has had their family told by competent medical personnel that their loved one is going to die ... and in the unlikely case that "such an one" should live, s/he would be (likened unto) a "vegetable" with an unacceptable quality of life.

Despite this pessimistic diagnosis, the brain injury rehabilitation programs across the United States are full of patients, young and old, who somehow "beat the odds" and recover.

Though many have residual problems, it is not at all unusual for this traumatic event to be transformational for the patient and the family, moving them to a realization of (what some of them discern to be) a spiritual dimension of life they were previously missing. (Whether that is "religiously significant" or merely of psychological and/or psychiatric interest remains for seriously and soul-searching discussion.)

It reminds us again and again that medicine is a long way from being complete as an exact science and that life and death and the processes on which are mortal consciousness are sustained hold still more amazing mysteries beyond the categories we often try to use. Although our finitude does not in itself imply a "Wholly Other" beyond the expanse of space-time, we surely cannot prove supernatural reality to be categorically "nonexistent" nor can we deny that our finitude leaves "more" to be known (although the mere concept of "more" is not the content of the Christian message).

Comment by: Marijonas Vilkelis (4 Apr 2000):

Hi Maynard,

I think the main area of dispute about this issue is that people like Peter Singer, as much as they are vegetarian, do not see death as a human inflicted curse. If death is unquestionably natural in someone's eyes, it becomes a useful commodity at some time or another. The question then arises "is death ever a progressive solution to human problems?" I believe not.

However there is a distinction between allowing someone to die, as opposed to killing them. Again, if death is seen as natural and inevitable, there would be little reason not to hasten someone in a seemingly hopeless situation along.  Such a do'er good'er is however making a bigger hash of things.

Deuteronomy 30:19 "....I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse, so choose life".

Comment by Frank L. Hoffman (4 Apr 2000):

Dear Maynard, Marijonas and Others:

There seems to always be a balancing of the moral and ethical desire to eliminate pain and suffering and that of resorting to euthanasia as a means of accomplishing it.

Most of us who have had very sick and suffering non-human companions have been faced with this very same question, and at times we have had to resort to euthanasia as a final solution. In this case, we do have some Biblical confirmation of allowing this, for we have been given dominion over the earth and all the non-human creatures that inhabit it with us. However, in no case does this dominion seem to extend to our fellow human beings (Genesis 1:26 and 28). Humans appear to fall only under the dominion of God.

In our Hospices, however, I have personally experienced that we do often practice a legal form of euthanasia. We give the person as much medication as is needed to eliminate pain and suffering, and then let them die, often without food or even water. I believe that this is putting ourselves in the position of being God.

This question also comes up when we sign a document that states, "Do not resuscitate" of "Do not use any extraordinary means to prolong life". Are these forms of planned suicide? In such a case are we assuming the power of God? If God gives us the ability to unnaturally sustain life, and we use it, are we being in God's will, or are we exceeding His will? The Bible doesn't address this kind of situation. When do we cease relying upon human means and solely rely upon God? Or, are both one and the same? And if we make such a decision, are we circumventing God's plan? And the questions continue...

Comment by Stephen Kaufman (4 Apr 2000):

I don't think we will ever come up with an unequivocal biblical guide to dealing with a persistent vegetative state, which is a product of modern medical technology unknown to the biblical narrators.

I don't have a definitive answer, but suggest compassion as a guide. If love and caring for the family and the unfortunate person in such a state guide our behavior, I don't think we can go very wrong whatever we ultimately decide to do.

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