Biothicist Wesley J. Smith: New Brain Study Has Bearing on Terri Schiavo Case

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Feb 4, 2010   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Biothicist Wesley J. Smith: New Brain Study Has Bearing on Terri Schiavo Case

by Steven Ertelt Editor
February 4
, 2010

London, England ( — Top bioethicist Wesley J. Smith says the new study showing active brain activity in patients who are supposedly in a vegetative state or a minimally conscious state has a bearing on the Terri Schiavo case. He says the judge who allowed her husband to kill her should have ordered similar tests.

The study found that patients in such unconscious states were able to respond mentally to yes and no questions by thinking of different things that activate brain activity in certain areas.

The patients showed they were very aware because they could answer all sorts of personal questions and do so accurately.

Smith recalled the Terri case in reaction to the study and pointed out how "she had been diagnosed as PVS and the courts refused to allow that determination to be shaken during the ordeal."

"Indeed, when it was clear that Terri would be lying in bed for a year pending appeals, the family begged Judge Greer to permit sophisticated brain scanning that had never been used on her before," he recalled. "It couldn’t have hurt her, and it might have shown something. But stubbornly, he refused. I will go to my grave believing the judge knew what he didn’t want to know."

Smith says both the Schindler family and others who observed Terri said she could "react, particularly, that she could hear and respond to loving talk (as in the famous photo of her smiling broadly as she is greeted by her mother or her opening her eyes wide on request.)"

He said that "thanks to Judge Greer’s intransigence we will never know what her brain scan would have shown."

Smith says those who point to Terri’s autopsy to supposedly show she had no brain activity can’t really rule out that she did not have any brain activity.

"The report said her brain was consistent with either a PVS or minimally consciousness, and moreover, that such decisions are clinical, not subject to being decided upon autopsy," he said.

In comments to the New York Times, Nicholas D. Schiff, an associate professor of neurology and neuroscience at Weill Cornell Medical College, said the study should have a significant impact.

“This should change the way we think about these patients,” he said. “I think it’s going to have very broad implications.”

Smith worries that it won’t have that kind of impact.

"The bioethics mainstream has rejected the equality/sanctity of human life for the so-called quality of life ethic," he writes today.

"It began with the odious advocacy of Joseph Fletcher in the Hasting’s Center Report back in 1972, claiming that the inability to communicate meant that one had lost humanhood (now called personhood). Thus today, not only unconscious but conscious patients are dehydrated to death in all fifty states and it is shrugged off as medical ethics," Smith explains.

Ultimately, for Smith: "Conscious or unconscious, people should not have to earn the right to receive basic sustenance. What we did to Terri Schiavo was a blight on the legal system and bioethics. Pretending otherwise won’t make that stain go away."

Related web sites:
Wesley J. Smith –

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