Years ago I saw Tony Bland in his little room at Airedale General Hospital. Tony Bland, if you may recall, made British legal history when a House of Lords ruling allowed the medical staff to take the feeding tube, which had been keeping him alive, out of his mouth. His parents had been fighting for this decision for three years.
Tony had been seriously brain damaged in the Hillsborough Football Stadium disaster, where many football fans had died in a crowd crush. He was on a ventilator, and was receiving artificial hydration and nutrition. His room at Airedale was like a little shine to Liverpool Football Club, full of scarves, shirts and other footballing paraphernalia, much of it personally signed by the footballers he idolised.
There seems to be some confusion between the term 'coma' and 'persistent vegetative state'. In a coma, defined as a "state of unconsciousness from which the patient cannot be aroused" there is some prospect of recovery, but a persistent vegetative state is another matter. Tony Bland had been crushed in the crowed and suffocated under the press of bodies. He'd suffered massive brain death. If you imagine someone in a coma to be lying there as if asleep, then you'd be right, but someone in a persistent vegetative state isn't like that. The body is awake, but the mind is damaged beyond repair. The body responds to stimulus, but there is no personality, no reasoning, no memory, no recognition of family or friends. If they suffer pain, they can't tell you about it, because there is no voice to speak. An individual in persistent vegetative state, such as the one Tony Bland was in, is a body without a soul.
I had this chance to see Tony Bland, because my mother used to work, not just with him, but with his mother. My mother knew the Bland family well, and as such, when she was visiting my grandmother in hospital, she would visit Tony as well. One one occasion I tagged along. I found it very disturbing to see this emaciated figure, eyes rolling as he looked at everything and nothing around the room. A kind of zombie, groaning, moaning, possibly in pain? There was no way to know. How distressing this scene was to his parents, I can't imagine.
Of course, every time Tony's parent's went to visit their son, they would have to break through a picket line of well-meaning, pro-lifers, determined to keep people alive far beyond the point when they should have naturally died. If we could have asked Tony, would he really have wanted to continue to exist in this fashion? Where was his quality of life?
We don't allow a dog to suffer in this way, but with people, it's perfectly acceptable, it seems.