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Editor: Katharine Van Tassel
Akron Univ. School of Law

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Thursday, September 27, 2007

Brain Study Results Startling

http://pandagon.blogsome.com/Salon.com's Robert Burton has an interesting piece highlighting a recent study in the Archives of Neurology that a woman in a persistant vegetative state was "aware of herself and her surroundings."  The article states,  

In a recent article in the Archives of Neurology, a team of British and Belgian neuroscientists describe a clinically unconscious accident victim who can, on command, imagine herself playing tennis and walking around her house. By showing that her functional brain imaging studies (fMRI) are indistinguishable from those of healthy volunteers performing the same mental tasks, the researchers claim that the young woman's fMRI "confirmed beyond any doubt that she was consciously aware of herself and her surroundings, and was willfully following instructions given to her, despite her diagnosis of a vegetative state."

Their extraordinary conclusions are beyond provocative; they raise profound questions about the very notion of consciousness. What's more, they could throw thousands of families and doctors into utter turmoil. As with the Terri Schiavo controversy, patient advocacy groups, self-serving lawyers and politicians with personal agendas could use the study's stamp of certainty as a given.

Yet the study's conclusions are not beyond a doubt. There are plenty of questions about whether this young woman is conscious and capable of choice.

Amanda Marcotte at Pandagon responds to Burton's analysis of the study.  She finds his concern that the Schiavo case and others involving PVS patients will be more problematic in the future.  She writes,

Myth #1: The decision whether or not to terminate life support was about Schiavo’s specific condition.

Their extraordinary conclusions are beyond provocative; they raise profound questions about the very notion of consciousness. What’s more, they could throw thousands of families and doctors into utter turmoil. As with the Terri Schiavo controversy, patient advocacy groups, self-serving lawyers and politicians with personal agendas could use the study’s stamp of certainty as a given.

Burton doesn’t state that directly, but his statement here about how this study could “influence” the landscape invokes the anti-choice myth that this is about a very specific, unique circumstance in medicine, and it’s not really. The case was decided on two merits: Who has the final decision-making capabilities for the patient on life support and what were the patient’s wishes about the situation. The main relevance of her condition was whether or not she was far gone enough to put the decision to terminate in the family’s hands; but that fact wasn’t really up for dispute anymore. The real axis was whether or not

She clearly is not a supporter of Ms. Schiavo's parents.  She has further thoughts on the study and Burton's analysis here (warning -  some strong language).  (I could not link directly to her post so you will need to scroll down a bit to find it.  The Post is entitled, "Brain Flickers v. Who Decides").

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