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Right of the living dead? Consent to experimental surgery in the event of cortical death

Abstract

Ravelingien et al have suggested that early human xenotransplantation trials should be carried out on patients who are in a permanent vegetative state (PVS) and who have previously granted their consent to the use of their bodies in such research in the event of their cortical death. Unfortunately, their philosophical defence of this suggestion is unsatisfactory in its current formulation, as it equivocates on the key question of the status of patients who are in a PVS. The solution proposed by them rests on the idea that it should be up to people themselves to determine when they should be treated as dead. Yet the authors clearly believe (and state) that patients who are in a PVS are in fact dead. Finally, given the public good that their proposal is intended to achieve, the moral importance they place on the consent of a person to the use of his or her body in research is ultimately only defensible in so far as this consent represents the wishes of a living person. It is thus only a gentle caricature of their position to suggest that according to their account, consent to participation in xenotransplantation research is a “right of the living dead”. The equivocation by Ravelingien et al on the question of whether these people are living or dead means that they avoid confronting the implications of their argument. The solution proposed by Ravelingien et al to the problem of how we should proceed with xenotransplantation research is therefore not as neat as it first seems to be.

  • PVS, permanent vegetative state

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