Palliative & Supportive Care

Affirming the right to care, preserving the right to die: Disorders of consciousness and neuroethics after Schiavo

JOSEPH J.  FINS  M.D., F.A.C.P. a1 c1
a1 Division of Medical Ethics, New York Presbyterian–Weill Medical College of Cornell University, New York, New York

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In this article, I attempt to untangle some of the cultural, philosophical, and ethical currents that informed the Schiavo case. My objective is to better apprehend what the Schiavo case means for end-of-life care in general and to assert that our discourse about the ethical issues attendant to brain injury will be impoverished if we limit our discussions about disorders of consciousness solely to the vegetative state. If we ignore emerging developments in neuroscience that are helping to elucidate the nature of these disorders and fail to broaden the conversation about brain injury, beyond the unmitigated futility of the permanent vegetative state, we will imperil others who might improve and be helped. Through such efforts we can help mitigate the tragedy of the Schiavo case and overcome the rhetoric that marked the national discourse in March 2005. Once the complexity of disorders of consciousness is appreciated, rhetorical statements about a right to die or a right to life are exposed as being incompatible with the challenge of providing care to such patients. This is especially true as neuroscience brings greater diagnostic refinement to their assessment and management, a topic addressed in this article, which specifically focuses on the clinical and ethical implications of the recently described minimally conscious state. Instead of staking out ideological positions that do not meet the needs of patients or families, we should strive to both preserve the right to die for those who are beyond hope while affirming the right to care to those who might benefit from coming advances in neuroscience. If we can achieve that delicate balance, we will be able to transcend the partisan debate that shrouded the life and death of Theresa Marie Schiavo and begin to articulate a palliative neuroethics of care for those touched by severe brain injury and disorders of consciousness.

(Received January 18 2006)
(Accepted January 29 2006)

Key Words: Neuroethics; Neuro-palliative care; Terri Schiavo; Terry Wallis; Disorders of consciousness; Brain injury; Ethics.

c1 Corresponding author: Joseph J. Fins, M.D., F.A.C.P., Division of Medical Ethics, New York Presbyterian-Weill Cornell Medical Center, 435 East 70th Street, Suite 4-J, New York, NY 10021, USA. E-mail: