Protesters in Brussels hold banners Feb. 11 against legislation authorizing euthanasia for children. CNS photo/ Laurent Dubrule, Reuters

Comment: Science a welcome ally in pro-life fight

  • November 3, 2017
In the pro-life battle it’s imperative to gather ammunition that comes from outside the movement. If we are ever going to change the minds of the great mass of Canadians, we need to bring in information free of any political or social agenda — in other words, scientific research that could care less about our cause or our faith.

In that regard, Into The Gray Zone by Adrian Owen is manna from Heaven for those of us battling euthanasia. Dr. Owen, an esteemed neuroscientist at Western University, has redefined the notion of the “vegetative state” and in turn what does life look like. 

His work is with the victims of traumatic brain injury, stroke and degenerative disease who until recently were unreachable and considered dead in all but name. Those unfortunate people ended up essentially warehoused until death took them away.

Over years of painstaking research, Owen discovered nearly a fifth of those declared in a vegetative state inhabited a space somewhere between “full consciousness and brain death” — what he has called “the gray zone.”

As I wrote recently, the federal government will look next year at expanding euthanasia to teens and those with mental illness. Those two categories I covered. The third category, allowing requests for euthanasia through advanced directives, is what concerns this column. 

I’m not going to try to explain the science in any great detail; instead, I urge you to buy the book, which is an amazing example of taking the complicated and making it simple without losing nuance. It’s also an exciting read and one that will haunt long after you’ve closed the covers. 

In general, Owen and his colleagues used sophisticated brain scans to compare reactions of distressed patients with healthy subjects. He used everything from showing pictures of faces to asking both sets of test subjects to imagine various scenarios, like playing a game of tennis. The healthy patients’ reactions formed a baseline. The working idea was that those in vegetative states should not show the same brain wave patterns as those with healthy brains. The scans found something much different.

He described a visit to Amy, a student and an athlete, who had suffered a traumatic brain injury when her head slammed into a curb. When he first saw Amy she was thought to be “awake but unaware.” To many, she would have been a vegetable. 

But after the scans, seven months after her injury occurred, Owen told her parents something “they hadn’t allowed themselves to hope for.” 

“The scans have shown us that Amy is not in a vegetative state after all. She is aware of everything.”

As Owen writes in the prologue, figuring out how to make contact with patients such as Amy had profound “effects for science, medicine, philosophy and law.”
“Perhaps most important we have discovered that 15 to 20 per cent of people in the vegetative state who are assumed to have no more awareness than a head of broccoli are fully conscious….”
There is an almost eerie element to Into The Gray Zone. The idea that someone is conscious but showing no outward signs can be frightening — akin to being in a prison of skin and bones. Which is why his research is so pro-life, even though Owen would likely not declare himself such in the way many of us would use the term. Religion plays no part in his work. Yet the outcome for some of his patients was akin to a resurrection.

Take Debbie, another person declared to be there in body but lost in mind. She not only began to show neurological responses during scans, but soon came to the surface in a way that can only be described as miraculous.

“When I saw her a year of so after her scan, she had severe disabilities but was rapidly improving, starting to speak again, to move her limbs, and return from the gray zone. She would pull herself up in her chair and laugh at her favourite TV programs, look at us when we spoke to her, and respond with fitful bursts of garbled speech that gradually became more and more intelligible.”

Regardless of his intent, Owen has given us valuable objective scientific information about the dangers rushing to approve euthanasia in advanced directives. Medical science has a way of progressing, not falling back.

No one could imagine this work even a few decades ago. Imagine where it will go several decades from now. Even science without religious faith can bring great hope. What could be more pro-life?

(Lewis is a Toronto writer and a regular contributor to The Catholic Register.)

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