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.
Those who hold that the life of a human being does not possess full moral worth in virtue of what he is, but instead, in virtue of the development of natural capacities, pull the rug out from under the principled argument for human equality. For the proposition that all humans are equal wasn't the result of a misguided survey of the developed abilities of humanity in general. Those who defend the principle of equality are fully aware of the inequality of human talents, abilities, and developed capacities. This is not the equality of which they speak. Rather, they point to an underlying moral equality--an equality of status that arises from the fact that all human beings are equally human, and fully human, regardless of the degree to which they have developed their basic, natural capacities. That is, they are valuable as subjects of rights and they have full moral worth simply in virtue of what they are--beings that have a rational nature, even if they have not yet developed their rationality, or its functioning has waned. They are intrinsically valuable, regardless of their immediately exercisable capabilities.
Those who deny this have relegated the founding principle of liberal democracies to the ash-heap of superstition. On their account--since they tie moral worth to the development of mental capacities--why isn't the life of an Einstein, or a Harvard graduate, of greater value than a person with severe retardation or Down syndrome? If moral worth is tied to the development of mental capacities--rather than to the nature of a being--then why do we still insist on the fundamental equality of all human beings? Since mental development, as evidence by brain states, exists along a continuum and sliding scale, why don't human rights exist along a parallel spectrum?
For these reasons, most philosophers resist the move to view human life as valuable only in virtue of additional development. Instead, they posit a distinction between human life qua animal and human life qua personal. It is human life as personal, they insist, that is of intrinsic value. And it is in this respect that all human persons are of equal status. But not all human beings are human persons, or so the argument goes. In doing so, they argue that the human person is something other than an animal organism: a spirit, soul, self-consciousness, or "ghost in a machine." But to argue this is to ignore the phenomenological realities of human life. For every human person is essentially a human animal, though a very special sort of human animal. Human persons are animals of a unique sort because of the way that matter and spirit are joined in one singular entity. The "I" that walks, talks, and eats and sees, smells, and hears, is the very same "I" that reflects upon the sense data obtained by seeing, smelling and hearing, and chooses the actions of walking, talking and eating. In other words, the animal activities of bodily movement and perception are performed by the same entity that performs the spiritual activities of willing, reasoning and thinking conceptually. The human person is, therefore, best viewed as a psychosomatic unity.
This dynamic unity of body and spirit is one substance--the human person--and this one substance is the subject of the profound, intrinsic dignity and worth. Thus, while the study recently released in the journal Science should give us all pause--as it demonstrates the limits of our ability to observe the interior lives of other people--it is inconsequential for the moral discussion about end of life care. It is instructive to ask what would have happened had the brain scan of the PVS patient in the study come back blank, with no lighted regions of brain activity. Would this have meant that her life lacked intrinsic worth and was no longer worth living? The answer is surely no, and thus it is important that the pro-life movement does not appear to rest its public argument upon these contingent factors.
Ryan T. Anderson is a Junior Fellow at First Things. He is also the assistant project director of the Program on Bioethics and Human Dignity at the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton, NJ.