Use of the Term "Vegetative State" is Dehumanization in Its Most Literal Form

By Sherry Phipps

The term “vegetative state” has been used in the medical field for decades to describe patients who have lost cognitive function due to severe brain injury. However, the use of this term is increasingly being criticized for its dehumanizing connotations. This article explores why the term is problematic and suggests alternatives that respect the dignity of patients.

The Problem with the Term

The term “vegetative state” is derived from the word “vegetable,” implying a lack of consciousness or awareness. This comparison is not only scientifically inaccurate but also deeply disrespectful. It reduces a human being, with their unique history, personality, and potential, to the status of a plant.

Moreover, the term can lead to harmful misconceptions. It may cause people to believe that these patients are incapable of experiencing pain or emotions, which is not always the case. Some research suggests that certain patients in a so-called vegetative state may still retain some level of consciousness.

The Impact on Patients and Families

The use of dehumanizing language can have profound effects on how patients are treated and perceived. It can influence medical decisions, such as the allocation of resources or the decision to continue life-sustaining treatment. Furthermore, it can cause additional distress to families who are already dealing with a traumatic situation.

Towards More Respectful Language

Many healthcare professionals and advocates are calling for a shift towards more respectful and accurate language. Terms like “unresponsive wakefulness syndrome” or “post-coma unresponsiveness” are being suggested as alternatives. These terms focus on the patient’s condition without resorting to degrading comparisons.


Language matters. The words we use to describe patients can shape our perceptions of them and influence their care. By moving away from the term “vegetative state,” we can ensure that we respect the dignity and worth of all patients, regardless of their medical condition. It’s a small but significant step towards a more compassionate and inclusive healthcare system. 

When a doctor calls a patient a vegetable, they are using an outdated, derogatory slur. They should be politely called out and educated. Perhaps they should apologize to the family and correct the medical record. The family may also want to consider whether they want to continue to see a doctor with this depth of tone deaf, discriminatory behavior against their own patients/customers and whether or not a doctor who is so far behind the current times has anything positive to offer. 

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