FOREST PARK, IL, February 17, 2005 ( – Disability activists have called for a nationwide moratorium on the dehydration and starvation of people alleged to be in “persistent vegetative state.” This would apply to individuals who do not have an advance directive or durable power of attorney. 

The call for a moratorium is a reaction to the newly-published report indicating high levels of brain activity in people thought to be in “minimally conscious state (MCS).” The study, published in the February issue of Neurology, discovered evidence that these individuals may hear and understand much of what is going on around them, but are unable to respond. 

The study drew a distinction between MCS and Persistent Vegetative State (PVS), but the distinction is not a reliable one. In a New York Times article, Dr. Joseph Fins mentioned research indicating a 30% misdiagnosis rate of PVS, indicating that nearly a third of persons diagnosed in PVS are actually in “minimally conscious state.” Fins is chief of the medical ethics division of New York Presbyterian Hospital-Weill Cornell Medical Center.

With the exception of oblique references to Terri Schiavo, current coverage of the study and its implications dance around the most important issues regarding this study. Namely, thousands of people around this country with labels of both MCS and PVS are being starved and dehydrated, often without an advance directive indicating their wishes, or a durable power of attorney appointing a substitute decision-maker they chose for themselves. 

“Given the current research regarding brain activity and misdiagnosis, it’s a virtual certainty that countless people have been helpless to prevent their own deaths through starvation and dehydration,” says Stephen Drake, research analyst for Not Dead Yet, a national disability rights group opposed to legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia. “There’s an analogy to DNA evidence and the death penalty. Here in Illinois, the staggering numbers of innocent and wrongly convicted people on Death Row resulted in a moratorium on the death penalty. Whether you agreed with the death penalty or not, everyone was forced to find ways to make sure no innocent person ended up on Death Row again. The same amount of concern should apply to medically induced deaths, in which the numbers far exceed the number of convicted people executed each year.” 

Not Dead Yet is calling for a moratorium on the withholding of feeding tubes from people in PVS and MCS until they can be tested under the same protocol used on individuals in the Neurology study. State-of-the-art testing for cognitive activity should be a minimum standard to be applied when someone’s death is proposed. Just as the availability of DNA testing and competent counsel are accepted as essential to people being tried in capital cases, the new technical tools to evaluate cognitive activity and potential should be applied to individuals before feeding tubes are withdrawn. Even with this technology, there will probably still be mistakes. But at least it will be the first step in reducing the number of conscious people dying from hunger and thirst in hospitals and nursing homes, aware of every minute and unable to cry out that they are awake. 

Euthanasia Prevention Coalition, executive director Alex Schadenberg commented to that “intentional dehydration and starvation is euthanasia and the act of killing a person with a cognitive disability is eugenic.”