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Women in Tech

Terri Schiavo and the Progress of Medical Science

By Sonia Arrison
Mar 25, 2005 5:00 AM PT

The high-profile battle over the removal of Terri Schiavo's feeding tube is about more than one woman's life. It is the beginning of an important dialogue on American views about life while science and technology progress at rapid speed.

Terri Schiavo was brain damaged 15 years ago when a heart attack halted the flow of oxygen to her brain. She survived in a brain damaged state, but requires a feeding tube for nourishment, as she can't swallow on her own.

Her husband claims that she told him she would never want to live a hospital-bound life and the courts have sided with him in his decision to pull the tube, essentially ensuring her death. Her parents, on the other hand, believe she would want to live and have consulted doctors who say that, with proper therapy, her condition could improve.

Terri Schiavo and the Progress of Medical Science

Promising Future

Indeed, anyone who has seen videotapes of Terri on news programs can see that she has the ability to look around and respond to stimuli -- she is not exactly the "vegetable" that the print news might lead one to believe. And looking into the future, there's a possibility, however remote, that Terri's condition could change significantly.

Advances in biotech and nanotech promise new therapies currently beyond our reach.

Just last year, for instance, researchers at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine reported the discovery of self-renewing cells found in adult human brains that may have the potential to repair brain damage or disease. Stem cell research has exploded around the globe, and in California voters felt it was important enough to throw the state into US$6 billion of debt for its sake.

According to a February 2005 poll by the Opinion Research Corporation, more than three out of five Americans (63 percent) now back embryonic stem cell research, and even higher levels of support exist for bipartisan federal legislation to promote more research (70 percent). With this apparent support for advancing life-extending and enhancing science, one might be baffled to find that 60 percent of Americans also support pulling the plug on Terri.

It is possible that at some point in the future new research will improve Terri's state, but those who argue in favor of pulling the plug despite this possibility argue that her current state is simply intolerable. Although she does not live in pain, she does not lead a life that any normally functioning person would choose. In essence, those who make this argument are saying that, in their opinion, hers is not a life worth living. That argument has been made before, with disastrous results.

Careful Consideration

Leon Kass, Chair of the President's Council on Bioethics, recently reminded listeners at the Holocaust Museum that it was so-called progressive academics and medical workers in Germany who endorsed the idea of eugenics based on the premise of lebensunwerten Lebens -- "lives unworthy of life." Not long after this intellectual and cultural shift, Germany's National Socialists made their own decisions about who was worthy of life, and we know how that turned out.

Those who would discount the gravity of this mistake should take a deep breath and think about the future. It might be helpful for some to remember the movie "Gattaca" in which only genetically fit people were allowed to have the best jobs, as they were obviously the most qualified. That's a scenario not so remote if society begins to abandon core principles of the right to individual life and liberty.

Arbitrary decisions on what life is worth living could haunt even those among us who are the most technologically savvy. Consider, for instance, professor Steve Mann at the University of Toronto who only sees the world through a wearable computer known as an "eyetap" apparatus. What if future democratic bodies determined his was not a life worth living?

The Right Default

Perhaps this thought horrifies us now, but if society chooses to go down the slippery slope of choosing which lives are valuable, we could end up in a state that disallows somatic choice -- what enhancements one might choose to make to one's body -- in favor of conformity and death.

Death is irreversible, making life the sensible default. If Terri Schiavo had created a living will that clearly said she wanted to die in the case of hospitalization, things would be different. Since she didn't, and since medicine is progressing at an amazing pace, her default should be life.

Sonia Arrison, a TechNewsWorld columnist, is director of Technology Studies at the California-based Pacific Research Institute.

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