Deader than dead: people in vegetative states are viewed as deader than corpses

In 1990, Terri Schiavo suffered a heart attack that left her in a persistent vegetative state. She came out of her coma but severe brain damage left her unresponsive with no detectable brain activity. Trapped in a state of “wakeful unconsciousness”, her condition triggered a lengthy legal battle between her husband, who wanted to end her life support, and her parents, who wanted to keep her alive. The debate over Schiavo’s moral rights raged for the better part of a decade, and the arguments were filled with people who claimed that her condition was a “fate worse than death”.

The phrase reflects a curious tendency to view people in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) as being deader than dead. Kurt Gray from the University of Maryland has found that people, especially religious ones, tend to think of PVS patients as having less mental capacity than a corpse.

Together with Anne Knickman and Daniel Wegner from Harvard University, Gray asked 201 volunteers to read an account of a car accident. The protagonist – David – either lived, died or entered into a PVS. “David’s entire brain was destroyed, except for the one part that keeps him breathing,” the third description read. “So while his body is still technically alive, he will never wake up again.’’

Gray asked the volunteers to rate how strongly they agreed with six statements about David’s state of mind. The results clearly showed that people see PVS patients as being more dead than dead. The volunteers were more likely to agree that dead David, compared to his PVS counterpart, could influence the outcome of situations, know right from wrong, remember the events of his life, have emotions and feelings, be aware of his environment, and have a personality.

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