Patients in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) are often kept on life support. PVS patients are considered to have permanent loss of consciousness. There have been studies showing that some PVS patients show activation when asked to imagine walking through their home or to play a favorite sport, such as tennis or golf. These recent studies lead us to question whether our definition of consciousness is appropriate, or whether our treatment of these PVS patients is appropriate. Are we obligated to keep these PVS patients alive? The New Jersey Supreme Court gave Karen Ann Quinlan’s guardian permission to disconnect her from a respirator (Beauchamp and Childress 160). Quinlan was still given medically administered nutrition and hydration. She lived for almost ten years after the respirator was removed. We have to wonder whether she was aware of her situation or was in pain since she could not communicate this.
If we do reevaluate our ideas about consciousness and decide that these PVS patients should be kept alive, are families or medical professionals held liable for withholding or withdrawing treatment? Will it be illegal for families and medical professionals to remove these PVS patients from life support? Individuals may not want to live in a persistent vegetative state, but their families and doctors would not be able to honor their advanced directives.
Beauchamp, T.L. & Childress, J.F. (2009). Principles of Biomedical Ethics (6th ed.). New York: Oxford University Press, Inc.