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Scanning for Life Forms

A new study raises serious questions about PVS, but does it matter?

12:00 AM, Sep 15, 2006 • By RYAN T. ANDERSON
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THE STORY OF A 23-year-old woman in a deep "persistent vegetative state" (PVS) made a splash in the news this past Friday, claiming headlines in the Washington Post, New York Times, BBC, CNN, and MSNBC, among other places. Why did this woman--deemed a "vegetable" after a car crash last year--merit such attention? Because new brain scans proved that the woman did indeed have a mental life. As MSNBC put it, "Car-crash victim startles doctors by mentally imagining tennis strokes."

A team of European scientists asked the disabled 23-year-old to imagine herself playing tennis. While asking the question, they scanned her brain using fMRI imagers. They then compared her brain scans to a control group of healthy adults asked the same question. The results were shocking, for they revealed that the same parts of the brain were lighting up in the car-crash victim as in the control group. The same results came in for both, time after time, for a number of other questions and mental tasks. The resulting brain scans of the PVS patient and the control group were "indistinguishable."

"I was absolutely stunned," said Adrian Owen, the lead researcher and neuroscientist from the Medical Research Council's Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit in Cambridge. Commenting on the study, which was released this past Thursday in the journal Science, he continued: "There is no other explanation for this than that she has intentionally decided to involve herself in the study and do what we asked when we asked." The researchers concluded that the woman "retained the ability to understand spoken commands and to respond to them through her brain activity, rather than through speech or movement." Because "imagining particular tasks when asked to do so represents a clear act of intention, which confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings."

Always wary of the political and moral implications of their results, there were the predictable claims that the results shouldn't been seen as having broad implications to other PVS patients. Of course the PVS patient par excellence, Terri Schiavo, was immediately brought up: James Bernat, a neurologist at Dartmouth Medical School, claimed, "I'm quite confident that [Schiavo] would not have responded in this way." At the same time, however, he too was taken aback: "It's a little disturbing. This suggests there may be things going on inside people's minds that we can't assess by interacting with them at the bedside."

The reason, of course, that some find this study disturbing is because they believe it would entail a different moral status, and thus medical treatment, of the PVS patient. No longer dehumanized to mere biological life, the patient might retain activity in the mind, and thus rightly be classified as a person. Even some pro-lifers make the mistake of arguing along these lines, as if this recent study vindicates the anti-euthanasia position. "See, she has a mental life, we just can't notice it through our normal five senses," so the argument would go.

This, however, is a mistake. And those who uphold the inherent dignity and equal worth of all human beings regardless of age, handicap, disability, or incapacity should beware of championing this study and future studies like it. For the intrinsic value of human life is not contingent upon the results of brain scans indicating mental activity. To think that it is would require one either to affirm body-self dualism or to reject the proposition that the lives of all human beings are of equal, intrinsic worth. Both positions are untenable.