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Derogatory Labels for People

By Mark Davis Pickup

Words can be so cruel and degrading. There was a time in the 19th century when North American natives were commonly called “savages.” The term was used to dehumanize [our] nation’s [first] people in order to take their land.

I remember a time when people with a mix of Aboriginal-European descent were called “half-breeds.” Somebody at the time might have said it was meant merely to describe rather than to demean, and that would have been a lie. The term half-breed was always used to cast an individual in a negative light and belittle him/her. Happily, I have not heard anyone use that term in decades. The métis are coming into their own. Injustices of yesteryear are finally being addressed and corrected.

Black people were called niggers; gay people called faggots. All derogatory, awful terms to call a human being. These horrible terms have largely fallen into disuse and that is a good thing.

A newer derogatory term is calling comatose or severely brain injured people vegetables or being in a persistent vegetative state (PVS) rather than the more accurate and kinder term of being persistently unconscious. Again, the intention of equating a human being with a vegetable or being like one is meant to strip them of their humanity. This is useful in an era when there is a chronic shortage of organs to harvest. If a human being is not thought of as a human being, then you can do anything to them.

We are coming across increasing numbers of people who were at one time labelled as vegetables or being in a “persistent vegetative state” who emerge from their comas. Not only that, we are now hearing that over 45 percent of PVS diagnoses may be inaccurate.

I want to share with you the case of Martin Pistorius (39) who lived in a locked-in state for twelve years. His doctors told his family he was as good as a vegetable. For the first two years he was unaware of himself or his surroundings but gradually started to become aware. Martin was in a locked-in state. He says, “Yes, I was there, not from the beginning, but about two years into my vegetative state, I began to wake up. I was aware of everything, just like a normal person.” Martin states about this about his condition: “My mind was trapped inside a useless body, my arms and legs weren’t mine to control and my voice was mute. I couldn’t make a sign or sounds to let anyone know I’d become aware again. I was invisible—the ghost boy.” He related his story in an autobiography book entitled Ghost Boy. You can order a copy here.

Martin heard his own despairing mother say, “I hope you die.” Grief can do terrible things. He believed no one would ever love him. Be careful what you say around those you think can’t hear you. Things may not be as they seem.

Martin is an intelligent and gracious man. He reflects on his mother’s harsh words: “As time passed, I gradually learned to understand my mother’s desperation. Every time she looked at me, she could only see a cruel parody of the once-healthy child she had loved so much.”

We know so little about the human brain. What I do know is that people never become vegetables. They retain their humanity regardless of their state and deserve respect and love. Those people who are comatose or seem unaware have a great gift to bring to the table of humanity. That gift is this: Their presence among us calls you and me to a higher standard of love. How will we respond?

[Click on this link for an interview with Martin and Joan Pistorius. Martin speaks about his years in what medicine shamefully terms as a persistent vegetative state.]

Mark Davis Pickup has lived with aggressive multiple sclerosis for over 28 years. Although electric wheelchair dependent, Mark has spoken across the United States and Canada promoting the sanctity, dignity, and equality of all human life. He has addressed politicians and legislative committees (both Canadian and American), university forums, hospital medical staffs, religious and denominational leaders, community groups, and organizations about the critical importance of protecting all human life from conception to natural death. Mark is also a widely published writer on bioethical and Christian issues. He writes a column for Canada’s Western Catholic Reporter newspaper. Mark is the recipient of numerous awards including the Monsignor Bill Irwin Award for Ethical Excellence, the William Kurelek Award for fostering respect and appreciation for the dignity of human life (Canada), and a Governor General’s Medal for Community Service.

This article has been reprinted with permission and can be found at