November 14, 2013 | Posted in Bioethics, Life, Medical Ethics | By

A recent study published in the journal Neuroimage: Clinical has found some patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) are aware of the world around them — and some are “not just aware, but paying attention.”

Scientists at the Medical Research Council Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit and the University of Cambridge published their research last month. In the study, researchers examined 21 PVS patients, asking the patients to listen and mentally respond to a series of words. Scientists used electroencephalography to measure electrical activity in the brain, and compared brain activity in the patients with brain activity in healthy volunteers who were asked the same questions.

Researchers at Cambridge write,

[Researchers] found that one of the vegetative patients was able to filter out unimportant information and home in on relevant words they were being asked to pay attention to. Using brain imaging (fMRI), the scientists also discovered that this patient could follow simple commands to imagine playing tennis. They also found that three other minimally conscious patients reacted to novel but irrelevant words, but were unable to selectively pay attention to the target word.

These findings suggest that some patients in a vegetative or minimally conscious state might in fact be able to direct attention to the sounds in the world around them.

Additional research is needed, but taken alone, the findings of these scientists could suggest as many as 4% – 5% of vegetative patients are paying attention to what is going on around them, and as many as 20% are at least somewhat aware.

As National Right to Life and Dr. Wesley J. Smith both note, this research verifies accounts from people who have recovered after being diagnosed as vegetative — people like Kate Adamson, who was left unfed and dehydrated following a stroke. Since her recovery, Adamson has written and spoken numerous times about the excruciating pain she endured while in her so-called “unconscious” state.

Ramifications of This Research

Many people associate the pro-life movement with abortion — and rightly so. Being pro-life, however, is about supporting the intrinsic value of human life — that is, the sanctity of human life. That means that human life must be protected from conception until natural death. Increasingly, however, many argue that patients in unconscious or vegetative states should be “put out of their misery,” or, perhaps worse, that we should euthanize these patients and harvest their organs.

Morally, there is never a justification for euthanasia. However, the argument many use in support of euthanasia is that vegetative patients are not aware of or engaged in their surroundings. Based on this new and exciting research, however, that argument may not hold up.

Jerry is the founder and president of Family Council. He began Family Council in 1989 after a successful effort to amend the Arkansas Constitution to prevent the use of public funds for abortions. He and his wife reside in Little Rock. They have four sons.