By Gudrun Schultz

MELBOURNE, Australia, October 5, 2006 ( – Patients designated as in a “persistent vegetative state (PVS)” should be used for medical experiments, according to several top bioethicists, regardless of whether or not prior consent was obtained.

Several articles published in the recent issue of the Journal of Medical debated the potential use of patients with non-responsive brain function for such medical experiments as animal organ transplants—to bypass ethic prohibitions against using a living human being for medical experimentation, some even suggested designating such patients as “dead,” saying their cognitive impairments justified treating them as cadavers.

Dr. John Shea, medical advisor to Campaign Life Coalition, told it would never be ethically or morally acceptable to use a living human being for medical research without their permission, regardless of their level of cognitive function.

“A person who has PVS is not dead! If you claim to respect the sacredness of human life, you can’t use a human person for medical experimentation—that would be grossly immoral.”

In fact, little is understood about the capacity for awareness and understanding of people suffering from severe cognitive impairment, Dr. Shea said. Documented cases of patients who have unexpectedly “woken up” from a supposedly permanent PVS state have refuted the argument that their condition is irreversible. (See:

Dr. Steven Curry of the University of Melbourne, who supports experiments using PVS patients, said it would be too difficult to convince the public that PVS patients were “dead”, according to commentary by the bioethics news watch BioEdge on Oct. 3.

Regardless, he said, their bodies should be used for medical research. Repeating a common fallacy of the bioethics debate on PVS, Curry stated that such patients will not recover. “Those who are in a PVS will not ever wake up, they feel no pain or discomfort and have no continuing interest in their own survival…”

While making the argument that PVS patients have no right to mental autonomy since they have no apparent functioning mental capacity, Dr. Curry excused the medical “use” of their bodies by suggesting such patients should be allowed to choose to donate their bodies for the good of science, saying, “…these patients must also have a right to risk that life for the common good.”

As a further basis for his argument, Dr. Curry stated that PVS patients’ inability to bear children and their lack of any capacity for movement justified the “possible confinement” caused by experimentation.

“Also,” he said, “no risk of withdrawal of consent exists.” While stating that obtaining prior agreement to experimentation would be preferable, he pointed out that such agreements would be unlikely, since few people would anticipate living in a “comatose” state for several years.

Dr. Curry would support permitting family members to give permission for a comatose relative to be used for medical experimentation, “with reference to the person’s values and stated preferences.”

Read commentary from the Australasian bioethics newsletter:

See related LifeSiteNews coverage:

Man Wakes from Two-Year Coma – was Aware and Remembers Everything

New study questions “brain-death” criterion for organ donation