Death, treatment decisions and the permanent vegetative state: evidence from families and experts

Med Health Care Philos. 2014 Aug;17(3):413-23. doi: 10.1007/s11019-013-9540-y.


Some brain injured patients are left in a permanent vegetative state, i.e., they have irreversibly lost their capacity for consciousness but retained some autonomic physiological functions, such as breathing unaided. Having discussed the controversial nature of the permanent vegetative state as a diagnostic category, we turn to the question of the patients' ontological status. Are the permanently vegetative alive, dead, or in some other state? We present empirical data from interviews with relatives of patients, and with experts, to support the view that the ontological state of permanently vegetative patients is unclear: such patients are neither straightforwardly alive nor simply dead. Having defended this view from counter-arguments we turn to the practical question as to how these patients ought to be treated. Some relatives and experts believe it is right for patients to be shifted from their currently unclear ontological state to that of being straightforwardly dead, but many are concerned or even horrified by the only legally sanctioned method guaranteed to achieve this, namely withdrawal of clinically assisted nutrition and hydration. A way of addressing this distress would be to allow active euthanasia for these patients. This is highly controversial; but we argue that standard objections to allowing active euthanasia for this particular class of permanently vegetative patients are weakened by these patients' distinctive ontological status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attitude of Health Personnel
  • Attitude to Death
  • Death*
  • Euthanasia, Active
  • Euthanasia, Passive
  • Family / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Persistent Vegetative State / diagnosis*
  • Persistent Vegetative State / therapy
  • Withholding Treatment*