December 2, 2023

Can you marry someone in a vegetative state?

Can an advanced directive be used to authorise a wedding?

As the Terri Schiavo case showed, the status of advanced directives can be controversial. But they are used – in various countries – to authorize withdrawal of life-support and even euthanasia. How about a wedding?

A controversial case before an Illinois District Court has generated debate about the limits of advance directives. John Morris, 63, the fiancé of Collette Purifoy, suffered an anoxic brain injury during an operation November 2009, leaving him in a vegetative state. Just before the operation, he had proposed to Purifoy, his partner for 30 years. Now Purifoy wants to marry Morris, despite his unconsciousness.

Illinois law requires that both individuals appear before a county clerk and sign the marriage application – something Morris is obviously unable to do. The state has refused the certificate because of this.

Practical Ethics writer Luke Davies criticised the decision. Surrogate decision makers should be able to be proxies for an unconscious person – we deny the autonomy of the person if we ignore the proxy: “If… surrogate decision-making should primarily serve as a way of promoting the autonomy of the person for whom decisions are being made, then ignoring such wishes would constitute a violation of that person’s autonomy”, he said.

Winebago County Clerk Margie Mullins — who first refused to give the couple the certificate — argued that they were simply unable to enter into a marriage. “the other party involved would have no idea what’s going on,” she said. “I just think that is not what marriage is supposed to be about.”

Xavier Symons
Creative commons
vegetative state