Prompted by reports of new findings that certain brain-injured people may be more aware of their surroundings than heretofore thought, a national disability rights group is calling for a moratorium on the practice of withdrawing feeding tubes from patients like Terri Schindler-Schiavo, who are alleged to be in either a persistent vegetative or minimally conscious state.
Not Dead Yet, an Illinois-based organization, says no one should be starved or dehydrated to death unless tested under a protocol described in a study published in the February issue of the journal Neurology. Using special brain-imaging technology – magnetic resonance imaging – neuroscientists discovered high levels of brain activity in two men thought to be minimally conscious and essentially brain-dead. The MRI scans of the patients revealed that under certain stimuli their patterns of brain-activity were comparable to those of healthy people.
The group wants similar MRI tests performed on all cognitively disabled people whose lives are threatened by the removal of their feeding tubes.
“State-of-the-art testing for cognitive activity should be a minimum standard to be applied when someone’s death is proposed,” said Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet, in a statement.
“Just as the availability of DNA testing and competent counsel are accepted as essential to people being tried in capital cases, the new technical tools to evaluate cognitive activity and potential should be applied to individuals before feeding tubes are withdrawn,” he declared.
Drake said the authors of the study drew a distinction between “minimally conscious” and “persistent vegetative” states, but the distinction is not a reliable one, according to Dr. Joseph Fins, chief of the medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center.
In a New York Times article, Fins referred to an earlier report from the United Kingdom that showed as many as 30 percent of patients identified as being unaware and in a persistent vegetative state were not PVS but minimally conscious.
Fins told the paper the recent study “gave [him] goose bumps, because it shows the possibility of this profound isolation, that these people are there, that they’ve been there all along, even though we’ve been treating them as if they’re not.” Fins was not involved in the research, but has collaborated with its authors on other projects.
The implications of the study to the plight of brain-disabled Terri Schindler-Schiavo, are obvious, though it may come too late to save the disabled Florida woman from a court-ordered starvation death.
Terri’s right to live is at the heart of an ongoing euthanasia battle being waged in the courts between her parents, Bob and Mary Schindler, and her estranged husband, Michael Schiavo.
The Schindlers have long maintained that Terri is not brain-dead, and are reportedly eager for their daughter to undergo MRI testing. Her responses to family members and the few outsiders who have been allowed to meet her strongly suggest she is one of the many brain-injured patients misdiagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state.
But Schiavo has not permitted his wife to have even a “swallowing test,” to determine if she really needs a feeding tube. Such testing, he says, would violate her “privacy” and “right to die with dignity.”
Drake said that Terri is not the only one trapped by laws and courts that allow the starvation of people diagnosed as being in a persistent vegetative state – hence the urgent need for a moratorium on feeding tube removals.
“Thousands of people around this country with labels of both MCS and PVS are being starved and dehydrated, often without an advance directive indicating their wishes or a durable power of attorney appointing a substitute decision-maker they chose for themselves,” he said.
“Given the current research regarding brain activity and misdiagnosis, it’s a virtual certainty that countless people have been helpless to prevent their own deaths through starvation and dehydration.
“Even with this technology, there will probably still be mistakes,” Drake added. “But at least it will be the first step in reducing the number of conscious people dying from hunger and thirst in hospitals and nursing homes, aware of every minute and unable to cry out that they are awake.”
Drake told WorldNetDaily a resolution calling for the moratorium is in the works, and within the next few weeks Not Dead Yet will approach other disability-rights groups for endorsement.
He hopes congressional hearings will be held on the starvation of patients that in turn will lead to legislation.
“It’s a national problem, and Congress is going to have to step in,” he said.