Bioethics Blogs

Our Special Treatment of Patients in a Vegetative State is a Form of Cruel and Unusual Punishment

by Professor Dominic Wilkinson, @Neonatalethics
Professor of Medical Ethics, Consultant Neonatologist

Our society has good reason to provide special treatment to people with severe brain injuries and their families.

But our current “special treatment” for a group of the most severely affected people with brain injuries leads to devastating, agonising, protracted and totally preventable suffering.

Consider the following cases:

Case 1. Sally has severe progressive dementia. She is no longer able to communicate, and does not recognize any of her family members. Sally had previously spoken with her family and told them that if she were ever in such a state and not likely to improve, that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Sally’s doctor has been called to her nursing home because she has pneumonia. Although the infection could be treated with antibiotics, the doctor and family together decide not to. Sally dies a few days later.

Case 2. Sandra has suffered a severe head and spinal injury in a car accident. She has been in intensive care for several weeks, but there is no sign of improvement. Her brain scans show extensive damage, and it is likely that if she survives Sandra would be severely disabled. Sandra had previously spoken with her family and told them that if he were ever in such a state and not likely to improve, that she would not want to be kept alive artificially. Although Sandra could be kept alive for some time if treatment continues, the doctors and the family together decide to stop life support.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.