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The Right to Not Give Up

Tue, October 24, 2017   |   Author: Peter Vogel   |   Volume 24    Issue 43   

When are you really, totally dead? Those who have died can’t tell us exactly when it happened; throughout history, there have been mistakes. In a few cases, people have been nearly buried alive. Fear of mistakes led to several designs of “safety coffins”, so that a live person wrongfully presumed dead would have a second chance. We don’t want to mistakenly pronounce a live person dead!

Or do we? While no one wants to have a mistake made about themselves, today’s medical advancements make a quick diagnosis of death, especially “brain death” enticing for those who need organ donations. Here’s the dilemma: when doctors have the ability to save a life using the organs of someone who has died, we applaud those efforts… but we must not allow the premature termination of one life for the extension of another. In today’s demand for healthy organs, there is a temptation to use the term “brain dead” to authorize the harvesting of organs from a living person, resulting in that person becoming “totally dead.”

Right now, there is a case in Brampton (a suburb of Toronto) of a family trying to keep their comatose daughter on life-support. Taquisha McKitty’s case is unique at this point in that she continues to move her legs, feet and head, though some in the medical community have pronounced her “brain dead.” They claim the movement to be only spinal reflexes, not true signs of life. Usually these signs of movement end after 72 hours; they don’t normally go on for weeks as hers have.

What should the courts and the medical profession do with tough cases like these? This is a question of bio-ethics, and not simply a scientific question. Why we give the answer we give is as important as the answer we give.

The family wants to give her a chance to survive, recognizing that it would require a miracle. The doctors involved in her case look at her condition and say it is not possible. The courts, up to this point, have allowed the patient to remain on life support till November 6th, 2017. This is at least a welcome reprieve, but what if the movements continue and there are still no other signs of life at that point?

A case in New Hampshire a number of years ago shows that there are exceptions to medical opinion that are beyond extraordinary. While she was never declared “brain dead,” Victoria Arlen was in a vegetative state for four years (beginning when she was 11 years old). Doctors thought that she was in a permanent vegetative state and that she would never regain consciousness. Yet somehow she did! She made eye-contact with her mother in 2009, and in the course of the next year re-learned how to talk, eat, and move her hands. She kept working and improving, but was paralyzed from the waist down. That did not stop her from swimming and, in 2012, she won Olympic gold (and three silvers) with the US Paralympian team!

But even this was not enough; she wanted to walk again and she kept trying with the support of her family. In 2015, after years of trying, her trainer saw a twitch of movement in one of her legs. They worked with that flicker of hope. In March of 2016, she walked on her own! Just a few days ago, she competed in a TV show called “Dancing with the Stars.” Wow!

This is an exceptional case, but what we have to remember is that none of the later advances and breakthroughs would have happened if it had not been for her family. They would not give up despite the fact that the medical community had. This is important for the case in Brampton also. The family has not given up. While there is life, there’s hope! We believe they should be allowed to continue to give Taquisha life-support.

But for how long, and who should pay for this? This is a difficult question in a country where the government pays for our health care and does not allow for a competing private health network to thrive. The family should have the option of taking their daughter to another health facility that would provide what she needs till she dies or recovers. A situation like this need not cost the government money (though it could be argued that they already spend “their” money on less-worthwhile things) but private citizens and charities can also provide help in these cases.

However it is done, the courts should not declare that life support be removed against the wishes of the family.

Time will tell; if Taquisha is really dead, that will become evident through tissue decay and organ failure, but should we not hold out in the hopes that she could be the next Victoria Arlen?

Life is precious, and we cannot give it back once it is taken, but we must do all we can to sustain and protect lives. That is why we have a heath care system. Even when we see cases like this where the opinions of doctors are being questioned, we should be thankful for the incredible advancements in scientific knowledge that we all benefit from. We don’t have to resort to “safety coffins” anymore!

Yet, with each of these advances, there are ethical questions, and these cannot simply be solved by logic—a moral framework is needed. Some moral frameworks are better than others; the Christian framework, built on the Bible, gives the best answers to these moral questions. As moral beings with respect for life and the God who alone gives life, we have a responsibility to provide life-sustaining care for our fellow-citizens in distress.

CHP Canada is built on this foundation and continues to develop and provide principled responses to tough problems like these. If you agree that Christian principles are needed in the area of bioethics, please support CHP by sharing our Communiques, becoming a member, and donating to our party. We embrace the right to not give up!

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