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America's Culture War: Euthanasia

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Terri Schiavo

by  Brad Harrub, Ph.D.

Terri Schiavo’s husband, Michael, listed three dates on her tombstone. The first is her birthdate (December 3, 1963). The second is the date that Michael believed she “departed from this Earth” (February 25, 1990—the day she was found collapsed on the floor). The third was the day on which he declared Terri was “at peace” (March 31, 2005). His contention was that she officially died in 1990. However, British researchers now may have many people questioning his decision to pull the feeding tube—as well as the diagnosis of “persistent vegetative state.”

Researchers studied a 23-year-old woman who sustained a traumatic brain injury. The MRI technology determined that the young lady’s brain functioned comparably to those of healthy volunteers. Adrian Owen, one of the authors of the study, noted: “What we’ve developed is a method for detecting when someone is aware in the absence of other clinical evidence” (as quoted in Hopkin, 2006). Nature staff writer Michael Hopkin remarked:

Neuroscientists have re-ignited the debate over whether patients in a vegetative state are conscious of their surroundings, by claiming that a woman in such a “waking coma” can respond to verbal commands. The researchers say that brain scans show that she can selectively think of performing certain actions, such as playing tennis, on request (2006).

Adrian Owen and his colleagues observed:

To address this question of conscious awareness, we conducted a second fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging—BH) study during which the patient was given spoken instructions to perform two mental imagery tasks at specific points during the scan. One task involved imagining playing a game of tennis and the other involved imagining visiting all of the rooms of her house, starting from the front door. During the periods that she was asked to imagine playing tennis, significant activity was observed in the supplementary motor area. In contrast, when she was asked to imagine walking through her home, significant activity was observed in the parahippocampal gyrus, the posterior parietal cortex, and the lateral premotor cortex. Her neural responses were indistinguishable from those observed in healthy volunteers performing the same imagery tasks in the scanner (Owen, et al., 2006, 313:1402, emp. added).

Neuroscientists are planning future studies to ask this young girl a series of “yes” or “no” questions in order to determine her feelings and level of consciousness. This study should go a long way in proving that the term “persistent vegetative state” is not a definitive diagnosis—and likewise remind us all of the innate value of every human life.


Hopkin, Michael (2006), “Thoughts of Woman in ‘Waking Coma’ Revealed,” Nature, September 7, [On-line], URL:

Owen, Adrian M., Martin R. Coleman, et al. (2006), “Detecting Awareness in the Vegetative State,” Science, 313:1402, September 8.

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