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Living patients in a permanent vegetative state as legitimate research subjects
  1. S Curry
  1. Correspondence to:
 S Curry
 Department of Philosophy, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, Old Quad, University of Melbourne, VIC 3010, Australia; E: sbcurry{at}unimelb.edu.au

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Ravelingien et al1 argue that we should recategorise people in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) as dead. Although the dilemma they describe is very real, their solution will not work. Other respondents to this paper have advanced several powerful arguments against the attempt to describe patients in a PVS as dead. Fortunately, the original argument contains sufficient resources for developing an alternative solution to this dilemma without having to radically change the current legal or social status of patients in a PVS. In fact, patients in a PVS may be enrolled in xenotransplantation experiments, provided that their prior informed consent has been sought.

The motivation for the original paper was to resolve an apparently intractable ethical conflict. On the one hand, there are powerful ethical and medical reasons for proceeding with research into the transplantation of non-human organs into human patients, whereas on the other, there are equally powerful ethical reasons for blocking whole-organ transplant experiments. These reasons are unusual in that special problems with xenotransplantation will block experiments that are permitted in other cases. In particular, the unquantifiable risk of a pandemic triggered by diseases such as porcine endogenous retrovirus crossing the species barrier will either block the research or expose subjects to the risk of indefinite quarantine (Ravelingien et al,1 p 93). The authors also argue that the restrictions placed on transplant recipients and the possibility of long-term and intrusive monitoring, restrictions on sexual contacts and reproduction, and possible confinement represent excessive and ethically unjustifiable burdens. Over time, the recipients may wish to withdraw their consent, but the risks to public health would prevent them from doing so, thereby violating the basic principle that subjects of scientific and medical experiments should be able to revise or withdraw consent (Ravelingien et al,1 pp 93–4). …

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