When Are You Dead?
But you can get an idea of the complexity of this research’s ethical implications from the reactions of students in two very different courses I happened to be teaching in a single day. In one class—of physicians discussing research ethics—a neurologist was very upset. She thought these research findings would be just as likely to make it even more difficult for her and families to decide what to do with those in a vegetative or near-vegetative state. The families might demand the new test, and then, if there is some intentional brain activity, they might be excited or even more frustrated and upset, depending on how they interpreted the results in their own consciousnesses.
As if confirming this, in my other course—this time a class of undergraduates exploring why we believe the things we do—we happened to be exploring the question of what constitutes a person. We had just read Descartes’ famous treatise (in which he proclaims “I think, therefore I am”) and the neuroscientist Antonio Damasio’s Descartes’ Error. Based on this new MRI research, we asked the question: If your Dad can only communicate through ‘thought MRI’ like patients in this study, would you consider him alive?
A student answered: I’d rather pull the plug, let him die. From personal experience, I’d rather just pull the plug. Tears formed in the student’s eyes, she broke down, and ran from the room.
Does religion help us here? Yes and no, as we heard in the (in)famous Terry [sic] Schiavo case. There are diverse responses to such cases even within particular religions, because the factual and conceptual lines are so blurry. A Catholic or a Jew might say: in Genesis we learn that we are all made in the image of God, we all have an inherent dignity, and to take that away is wrong.
But what constitutes dignity here? another Catholic or Jew (or my student who ran from the room) might ask. A Muslim might say: to kill one person is to kill all people, to help one is to help all—but another might ask: how are we defining life?
One Buddhist says, we must hold on and wait for a miracle—but another responds: we must let this person and her soul go peacefully or else we are negatively impacting its next life.
Once again, science sneaks in on (invades?) the way we live and die—and makes it easier, and harder, to do so.