Mark Pickup

October 18, 2010

There is a commonly used term that I find deeply offensive. Perhaps I find it offensive because there is a chance that one day I may be referred to by this term: The term is "vegetable" and its extension is "vegetative state."

I knew of a man with multiple sclerosis so advanced he could not move or speak; all he could do was blink his eyes to communicate. I was incensed to hear of him referred to as a vegetable.

I think that using the word "vegetable" to describe people with serious cognitive or physical disabilities, or comatose, should go the way of the "N" word. It's meant to dehumanize vulnerable people and encourages the public to see them as having less value or dispensable.

A year before Pope John Paul II died, he addressed an international congress studying life-sustaining treatments and vegetative states. The pontiff spoke directly about this negative practice of calling disabled human beings "vegetables" or being in a "vegetative state."


He said, in part, "I feel the duty to reaffirm strongly that the intrinsic value and personal dignity of every human being do not change, no matter what the concrete circumstances of his or her life.

"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.'

"Even our brothers and sisters who find themselves in the clinical condition of a 'vegetative state' retain their human dignity in all its fullness. The loving gaze of God the Father continues to fall upon them, acknowledging them as his sons and daughters, especially in need of help."

The pope cut to the heart of the matter: The derogatory label of "vegetable" or "vegetative state" must never strip a human being of their humanity or allow society out of its responsibility to lovingly care for people compromised by dysfunction of their mental capacities but that is what such labels are designed to do. It is easier to kill a vegetable than a man.

When we are allowed to think of another human being as something less than human then somehow it becomes acceptable to treat them as less than human.

Words have the power to do just that. African American people were once called "niggers." It was meant to degrade and dehumanize them and allow society to enslave them or deny any claim to equality and other human rights.

At one time North American Indians were commonly referred to as "savages" in order to demean their humanity and allow others to take away their land. Fortunately, civilized people have rejected these dreadful terms.


I propose that civilized society make the terms "vegetable" and "vegetative state" equally unacceptable and repugnant when referring to people with profound cognitive disabilities or those who are comatose.

Pope John Paul told us that God's loving gaze continues to fall upon them. This is an important truth. In the eyes of God, all people retain their human dignity regardless of their circumstances.

Jesus told us that whatever we do to the "least of these," we do to him. Surely those people whose mental capacities are compromised qualify as being among the least of these. They are certainly defenceless. Not to defend the defenceless - whether it is their dignity or safety that is threatened - is an offence against truth, justice and mercy.

People who truly love God must always be ready and quick to speak up for the defenceless and vulnerable in our midst for this is part of what it means to love our neighbour as ourselves.


Speaking up for the care and human dignity of people whose higher functions have been seriously compromised either by birth, disease or accident is a powerful Christian witness to a post-Christian society.

Refuse to use derogatory terms for other human beings; it's unbecoming of a Christian and reflects poorly on our Christian witness. Followers of Jesus Christ must not stoop to referring to comatose, seriously ill or cognitively disabled people as vegetables. Give the same respect to others as you would want if you were in their position. Everyone bears the indelible image of God.


By doing so, we can become beacons of Christ's light reflecting to a darkened world. Others will see that our actions do not reflect self-interest, rather a sincere interest in the care of others who may not be aware we are even concerned for their welfare.

We must hold up all human life as worthy of respect and loving care. Our lives must be committed to serving rather than being served.