The Magazine

The Long Awakening

A Belgian case revives the Schiavo decision.

Dec 14, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 13 • By WESLEY J. SMITH
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That seems unlikely. Houben is in the care of an internationally respected doctor, Steven Laureys of the University of Liège, not a person one would expect to participate in such a subterfuge. Laureys reacted angrily to the criticism in the New Scientist, telling an interviewer, "I am a scientist. I am a skeptic, and I will not accept any communication device if it is not properly tested."

The Associated Press reported steps the doctor had taken to confirm the reliability of the facilitated communication:

One of the checks Laureys applied to verify Houben was really communicating was to send the speech therapist away before showing his patient different objects. When the aide came back and Houben was asked to say what he saw, that same hand held by the aide punched in the right information, he said.

In any case, why the sour response to a good news story? It is hard to shake the feeling that the emotional crosscurrents stirred by Terri Schiavo have been stirred again. Time reported that Schiavo-type "legal fights are likely to become more common as classifications of brain-injury severity are revised." According to ABC, Schiavo's family "felt both heartbreak and vindication" about the story.

Predictably, activists on both sides have weighed in. Much-quoted bioethicist Art Caplan, who strongly backed Michael Schiavo quest to end his wife's life, sniffed after viewing a video of Houben that it all looked like "Ouija Board stuff" to him. The Huffington Post's resident bioethicist, Jacob Appel, argued that people in Houben's condition should be considered for euthanasia: "Rather than offering a compelling reason to keep such patients alive," Appel wrote, "the horrors of enduring such a petrified existence may offer a compelling reason to let them die."

The Calgary Herald, however, editorialized, "The lesson from Houben's case--and reinforced, sadly, too late by Schiavo's case--is that if doctors and courts must err, it should always be on the side of life, and on the assumption that despite all outward appearances, the 'I' is indeed there."

Wesley J. Smith is a senior fellow in human rights and bioethics at the Discovery Institute, attorney for the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, and a consultant to the Center for Bioethics and Culture.