We have never discussed a letter to the editor before, but considering the very impressive medical credentials of the author (whose name we deleted) of the following piece from the June 21st, 2005 *New York Times*, and the fact that he challenges the *logic* of the argument of the supporters of Michael Schiavo, we felt we had no choice.
Here’s the letter in full:
>To the Editor:
>Terri Schiavo’s autopsy report claimed that she was probably blind. Supporters of the decision to starve her to death have hailed this finding as bolstering their argument that withdrawal of her feeding tube was ethical.
>Their reasoning is hard to follow.
>If Ms. Schiavo was in a persistent vegetative state, blindness is a meaningless diagnosis. Only sentient people can see, and only sentient people can be blind. And if she were blind, then she was sentient, and the diagnosis of persistent vegetative state was a genuinely fatal mistake.
>The lapses in logic aside, it’s chilling to assert that it’s more ethical to starve a handicapped person if that person is blind. This is what passes for ethics among advocates for euthanasia.
Now let’s take a closer look.
The author claims that supporters of the decision to remove the feeding tube have mistakenly concluded that evidence of Ms. Schiavo’s blindness bolstered their argument. This argument, however, suffers from a number of fatal lapses in logic.
First, the term “blind” and “blindness” is used in all sorts of ways. Certain bats and moles are referred to as blind in order to indicate their complete inability to see. This is presumably the sense in which the term was meant. Certainly if all that was meant was that Ms. Schiavo was blind, but still conscious, then the case never would have gotten so far. One might think of the blindness claim as evidence against the Fristian and Bushian view that Ms. Schiavo could “see” her mother.
Second, the author of the letter compounds his error by constructing a specious implication. We might restate this as follows: if someone can or cannot see, then that person is sentient, so if someone cannot see, then someone is sentient. That’s fine as it stands, but this means that dead people are sentient–after all, they are blind (in that they cannot see).
Third, it must be the case that by “blind” Dr. Whosits means “sentient, but not able to see” in which case he has simply assumed what was meant to be demonstrated–i.e., that she was sentient. The blindness (understood as it was meant to be) was evidence in support of the clinical diagnosis of a persistent vegetative state. That it can be used, as the doctor uses it here, as evidence of sentience can only be due to a semantic trick.
Finally, it may not be the case that all sentient things are conscious. A doctor of neurosurgery ought to know this.