US Catholic Faith in Real Life

Persistent vegetative state? Ariel Sharon's 6-year coma and the ethics of sustaining life

By Bryan Cones | Print this pagePrint | Email this pageShare

Remember Ariel Sharon? He was the hawkish former prime minister of Israel known for his hard line with Palestinians who was incapacitated by a sudden stroke in 2006, from which he never recovered. Indeed, up until now, he was been in a type of unresponsive coma, much like that of the late Terry Schaivo, whose death in 2005 after her feeding tube was withdrawn sparked much debate about what consitutes "ordinary" (as opposed to extraordinary) care for those in these conditions.

Since Schiavo's death, a number of studies have sought the brain activity of those in persistent coma, with one study showing some cognitive brain activity in a few patients--brain activity that suggests that they have some ability to interact with the world around them and experience some form of consciousness. Studies on Sharon's brain have revealed "very faint," responses, Reuters reports, which may some day lead to the ability to communicate with those in this condition.

I'm still uncertain, frankly, about the morality of this whole thing. While I affirm the rights of patients and families to life-sustaining care and our common moral obligation to provide it--and recognize the danger people with disabilities and the very old face in a cost-driven health care system--I wonder about the ethics of sustaining life in the case of someone like Sharon. Do we have any reason to believe he would want to be sustained in this state, without any reasonable hope of recovery? What if, assuming the further expansion in our abiility to communicate with him, he asked to be allowed to die naturally?

I worry that our reliance the amazing abililities of medical science and our proper caution about doing anything that may end a life is leading us to a kind of vitalism--a focus on mere biological function--that is both misguided and cruel to the dying. I certainly would not want to be sustained in a persistent coma with no reasonable hope of recovery for six years while doctors test my brain for function. That's not human life for me, and I don't think there is anything in Catholic moral tradition that insists I must continue to live in a such a condition. That doesn't mean I want to be euthanized, but it does mean I would want those who care for me to allow nature to take it's course without artificially sustaining my body's function.