Euthanasia Backers Discount Rom Houben, Man Who Spoke After False "Coma"

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 25, 2009   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Euthanasia Backers Discount Rom Houben, Man Who Spoke After False "Coma"

by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 25
, 2009

Brussels, Belgium ( — No sooner did Rom Houben make international headlines than skeptics and euthanasia advocates attempt to discredit the story of a man who says he was falsely tagged as being in a coma for 23 years. Houben has been embraced by those who say physicians are too quick to label patients as in a vegetative state.

As noted, Houben shared his story this week of how he is now able to talk with the world now that a scientists retested him, found his brain to be functioning normally, and provided him with therapy allowing him to communicate.

However, euthanasia proponents are attempting to discredit the story.

The Huffington Post’s resident utilitarian bioethicist, Jacob Appel, contends that Houben can’t really be communicating and suggests a test to smoke out the supposed chicanery.

"I confess that I am still highly suspicious of the details of this alleged medical miracle–and particularly of the messages that Houben purportedly types with the help of his aide," he writes.

He wants to know whether "his story is authentic, a matter of wishful thinking, or even a cruel and manipulative hoax" and, until that time, "the media and the public should retain a healthy skepticism."

Apparently, that has been done.

The Associated Press indicates the team of British neurological expert Dr. Steven Laureys showed Houben an object while his aide was not present and he was able to write it down correctly.

“So all that has been checked and confirmed, so we are sure it is him who is talking,” Prof. Audren Vandaudenhuyse, a colleague of Laureys, told AP.

Houben’s mother, Fina, told the AP her son has been communicating with him for three years.

“At first he had to push with his foot on a sort of computer mouse which only had a yes-no side,” she said in a telephone interview. “Slowly he got better and developed through a language computer and now communicates with this speech therapist holding his hand.”

Also, Dr. James Bernat of Dartmouth Medical School called Laureys “a very rigorous scientist and physician" who is "one of the world’s leaders” in the field of brain imaging in people with consciousness disorders.

American bioethicist Wesley J. Smith responded to the charges from the euthanasia backers and skeptics.

Although he believes skepticism is warranted in some cases, "there comes a time when skepticism becomes something else, an ideological tool to keep society from drawing ethical conclusions that the skeptic might oppose."

"I think we have reached that point in the Rom Houben case," he said and alleged that Appel "worries that the Houben good news might prevent similar patients from being dehydrated or euthanized."

"The Hougens case unquestionably gets in the way of the utilitarian agenda to rid us of burdensome cognitively and neurologically disabled people and/or to gain a license to use them as natural resources in organ harvesting or experimentation," he said.

"But Houben rehumanizes a subset of patients–the unconscious and those apparently so–who have been denigrated and marginalized for many years by the dehydration crowd. I think his story just might cause enough pause to keep us from writing these people off, and in the process, save some lives," he added.

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