Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of September 15, 2008
Slapping labels on injured bodies too quickly can backfire
Labelling someone brain dead, vegetable can deny treatment, rehabilitation
My Glass is Half Full
By MARK PICKUP
Eight years ago, Kevin Monk of Casper, Wyo., was in a terrible car accident. He suffered severe physical and brain injuries. For 18 days after the accident Monk had no brain function. He remained in a coma for another three months. During that time, his doctors tried to persuade his family to let him die.
Contrary to the doctors' predictions that Monk would never recover, he did waken from his coma. In a recent interview with the Casper Star-Tribune, Monk, now 33, said, "Some of the doctors told Mom and Dad to just pull the plug." His mother added, "From every place we went, they told us he'd never be anything but a vegetable."
Some vegetable! Today, Kevin Monk is well on his road to recovery and even walks unaided.
A human is a human
Why does modern society believe that catastrophic injury turns a human being into a vegetable? If an apple falls from the tree, it is a bruised apple, but it remains an apple. If a racehorse breaks its leg, it is an injured racehorse, but it remains a horse.
Why is it that a severely injured person somehow becomes a vegetable? The fact is, he does not - and most rational, reasonable people know that in their heart of hearts.
Referring to a comatose human being as a vegetable is intended to distance them from their humanity. It's easier to starve and dehydrate a person to death if they are not viewed as human. It releases doctors from any responsibility for care usually afforded to people.
Change the species
Words are powerful, but not so powerful enough to change a man's species, regardless of how wounded he may be.
This phenomenon is of great interest to me: I may be called a vegetable at some point in the not so distant future. After all, I am incurably ill with aggressive multiple sclerosis that is slowly stripping me of function.
When will utilitarian bioethics decide my transition from man to vegetable is complete? I'm triplegic now. Does that make me half vegetable? The last time I looked in the mirror my hair had not yet turned into leafy tops.
Will my transition from man to vegetable be complete when I'm quadriplegic or bedridden or no longer able to communicate? When will it be? What will be the criteria for medical bioethics to strip me completely of any claim to humanity?
I know it's not brain wave activity because Kevin Monk was considered a vegetable even after his brain function returned. I heard Terri Schiavo referred to as a vegetable and she had brain function.
Princeton University professor and animal rights champion, Peter Singer, has suggested using comatose patients for medical experimentation instead of animals. In other bioethical circles it has been suggested to use comatose and terminally ill patients as sources to harvest organs for transplantation.
There you have it. Strip a person of their humanity with terms like "vegetable" and "persistent vegetative state" dismantle any notion of the sanctity of human life and any barbarity is possible.
Stripped of humanity
No human being is a commodity or property for the use of others. This sort of appalling, stone-hearted mentality has marred the history of mankind. It takes different forms: It occurred as slavery through racial prejudice and subjugation, forced child labour, oppression of women.
All these groups of people were seen as commodities or property at one time or another. Twenty-first century bioethics sees the people labelled as being in a persistent vegetative state as commodities to do with as they please.
A year before he died, Pope John Paul II commented on the derogatory term "vegetable." He said, "A man, even if seriously ill or disabled in the exercise of his highest functions, is and always will be a man, and he will never become a 'vegetable' or an 'animal.'"
The pope reminded the world's health care professionals:
"The sick person in a vegetative state, awaiting recovery or a natural end, still has the right to basic health care (nutrition, hydration, cleanliness, warmth, etc.), and to the prevention of complications related to his confinement to bed. He also has the right to appropriate rehabilitative care and to be monitored for clinical signs of eventual recovery."
Catholics must always resist cultural pressures to subjugate or devalue any members of the human family. We are people of light not darkness. We must shine the light of Christ's love and compassion for all to see. He calls us to reflect the light of that love and compassion through our lives and witness.
How far does the light of Christ's love and compassion extend? To all human life from the youngest in the womb to the oldest near the tomb and every state or stage between those two points. Even comatose people retain their full human dignity. I know this because John Paul II said it.
He then reminded us: "The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help."
Pope John Paul's suffering in his last days illustrated this truth poignantly. His last public appearance at the papal apartment had to be cut short because he could no longer speak. To me, it was his most eloquent moment for he showed his solidarity with the disabled and incurably ill of the world who cannot speak for themselves. One day I may be among their ranks.
Thank you holy father.
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