Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Consciousness: the new test for viability

Finally, the highly publicized ethical and moral question that divided the nation, as well as the blogosphere, has been answered.
LARGO, Fla. - An autopsy on Terri Schiavo backed her husband's contention that she was in a persistent vegetative state, finding that she had massive and irreversible brain damage and was blind, the medical examiner's office said Wednesday. It also found no evidence that she was strangled or otherwise abused.
"The brain weighed 615 grams, roughly half of the expected weight of a human brain," he said. "This damage was irreversible, and no amount of therapy or treatment would have regenerated the massive loss of neurons."
If not resolved in the minds of those fighting for Terri’s “life”, there is at least a modicum of vindication for the proponents of the right to die. The medical examiner's report confirmed that Mrs. Schiavo was not cognizant and technically deceased, but for living tissue. Furthermore, the various judgments in favor of Mr. Schiavo were consistent with prior court rulings in matters that concern the termination of “life”. Rowe v. Wade considered the viability aspect of a fetus in 1973.
(c) For the stage subsequent to viability the State, in promoting its interest in the potentiality of human life, may, if it chooses, regulate, and even proscribe, abortion except where necessary, in appropriate medical judgment, for the preservation of the life or health of the mother. Pp. 163-164; 164-165.
Our task, of course, is to resolve the issue by constitutional measurement, free of emotion and of predilection. We seek earnestly to do this, and, because we do, we have inquired into, and in this opinion place some emphasis upon, medical and medical-legal history and what that history reveals about man's attitudes toward the abortion procedure over the centuries. We bear in mind, too, Mr. Justice Holmes' admonition in his now-vindicated dissent in Lochner v. New York, 198 U.S. 45, 76 (1905):

"[The Constitution] is made for people of fundamentally differing views, and the accident of our finding certain opinions natural and familiar or novel and even shocking ought not to conclude our judgment upon the question whether statutes embodying them conflict with the Constitution of the United States."
Those that seek to re-criminalize abortion typically disregard matters of cognition when assigning personhood to the unborn, as is the thinking with respect to euthanasia for the brain dead and profoundly brain damaged. In these emotionally charged issues, there is invariably a religious component to the moral underpinnings of such a position.

It is with strong religious conviction in mind that the The First Amendment, with its prominent placement in the Bill of Rights, ensures that the State is bound by a secular mandate. This, among other things, provides for scientific advancement, unencumbered by irrational superstition and myth. So, in the interest of new discoveries, Slate examines the ever elusive topic of consciousness in a recent article.
Sometime in the next decade or so, neuroscientists will likely identify the specific neural networks and activity that generate the vague but vital thing we call consciousness. Delineating the infrastructure of awareness is biology's most difficult problem, but a leading researcher like Chrisstov Kotch, Gerald Edelman, or Stanislas Dehaene could soon solve it. Science will then possess what might be called a "consciometer"—a set of tests (probably an advanced version of a brain scan or EEG) that can measure consciousness the way kidney or lung function is now measured.
An objective measure of consciousness would do much in the way of quantifying life. In addition to reducing the level of ambiguity surrounding abortion and euthanasia, the stem cell debate might well be less rancorous. Regardless, in the final analysis, those that contend that “life begins at conception” must simply be content to hold that view personally, because their contention only has significance in a religious or theological context, not in the realm of objective secular science.
But now, scientists are getting a better grip on consciousness even as viability is becoming mushier, moving up in the second trimester as medical improvements keep alive ever-younger premature babies. This volatility (and the health problems of tiny preemies) makes viability less attractive as a legal marker. The consciometer, on the other hand, will offer firmer, more stable physiological criteria to determine the start of morally significant human life—the clear dividing line that courts have long sought.
…current neurology suggests that a fetus doesn't possess enough neural structure to harbor consciousness until about 26 weeks, when it first seems to react to pain. Before that, the fetal neural structure is about as sophisticated as that of a sea slug and its EEG as flat and unorganized as that of someone brain-dead.