Are children who are born without a cerebral cortex conscious?

By Anna-Karin Margareta Andersson

The article highlights an important but surprisingly neglected medical ethical topic: new research suggests that children born without a cerebral cortex are conscious. What types of care should they be provided in order to respect their human rights? This topic caught my attention thanks to Professor Alan Shewmon and colleagues’ pivotal 1999 study of such children in the children’s home environment. Never before had the capacities of these children been documented in their home environment. In a familiar environment, supported by family, these children interacted socially and seemed capable of both joy and suffering. Barb Aleman and Bjorn Merker subsequently made similar observations of over 100 children. These observations have not remained unchallenged. Critics have argued that the alleged “conscious” behaviour could be merely sophisticated reflexes. The article further explores how this lively and unsettled debate has high ethical stakes also for treatment of children with brain damage due to birth complications, to adults in a “vegetative” state, and to recent successful attempts to partially reanimate dead animal brains isolated from the animal’s cranium. In order to tackle these profound ethical challenges, neuroscientists and philosophers need to engage in cross-disciplinary research. The article is an attempt to contribute to this quest.

Paper title: Congenitally decorticate children’s potential and rights

Author: Anna-Karin Margareta Andersson

Affiliations: Uit The Arctic University Of Norway, Department of Philosophy, Faculty of Humanities, Social Sciences and Education

Competing interests: None

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