Tags: Definition | Death | Has | Shifted

Definition of Death Has Shifted

Tuesday, 29 March 2005 12:00 AM

Almost four decades ago, the fallacious concept of "brain death" was introduced to pry open the legal doors to the killing of another group of unnoticed innocents - people who agree to donate their vital organs at death.

Deeply compassionate people are encouraged to consent in writing to allow another person to benefit from their vital organs, such as the heart or liver, after they die. Potential donors overcome their discomfort about the procedure by imagining they will be giving away unneeded organs from their cold, lifeless bodies. But the real situation is often quite different.

According to the testimony of Dr. Paul Byrne, a neonatologist from Toledo, Ohio, to a Pontifical Academy of Sciences meeting in Rome in February:

"All the vital signs of the donors are still present prior to the harvesting of organs, such as: normal body temperature and blood pressure; the heart is beating; vital organs, like the liver and kidneys, are functioning; and the donor is breathing with the help of a ventilator."

Since organs deteriorate rapidly after the moment of actual death, the "brain death" fiction allows them to be removed while they are still alive and usable for transplant.

Those who defend the removal of organs in this way may agree that the donors are actually alive in the traditional sense, but then argue that "brain death" means the quality of the donor's life is so poor that the benefits of transplanting their organs to extend the life of another outweighs the cost of killing them in the process.

The usual meaning of the word "death" is twisted for the benefit of people who have an interest in declaring a dying person dead as soon as possible. Such interested third parties could include family members, like Michael Schiavo, who want guaranteed legal immunity when they discontinue life-prolonging measures.

But this article focuses on another group of "brain death" beneficiaries: those who have an interest in collecting vital organs to transplant.

Let's reiterate that many transplants don't require the death of the donor – such as blood transfusions, bone marrow transplants, skin grafts, and living kidney transplants; these wonderful medical innovations are not at issue here.

Most of us don't need a certified expert to ascertain that someone is really dead. When a person has no heart beat, isn't breathing and has rigor mortis, we know that person has died.

When none of these symptoms prevail, we view the person as alive.

The concept of "brain death" gets around these inconvenient facts and allows professionals to declare someone dead who, to other observers, shows signs of life.

Since so many scientists, experts and physicians are involved, "brain death" has the superficial appearance of a medical diagnosis based on strict criteria. Not so.

Dozens of different sets of criteria have been published since the concept first emerged in 1968 with the publication of the article "A Definition of Irreversible Coma" in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Numerous and varying sets of criteria about what constitutes brain death leave the field wide open for abuse or "different interpretations."

When a person is truly dead, the brain cells don't generate nerve impulses or EEG signals. But the converse, that no brain signals means no life, isn't true. Many people with brain trauma or oxygen deprivation such as from a stroke or water filling the lungs (pulmonary edema) have had no detectable brain waves yet regain full consciousness later once oxygen returns to the cells. In these people, brain cells are temporarily too weak to generate nerve impulses or EEG signals.

Obviously, removing a person's beating heart kills that person. Sometimes the heart is transplanted and beats on in another person. So, is it OKto take a beating heart from one person, as long as that person is declared brain dead, and transplant it in someone else who might die without it?

We say "No." In a culture of life, the answer would tend in the direction of preserving rather than taking life.

But our culture is shifting to a standard that allows the killing of a weak person whose quality of life is arbitrarily deemed inferior so that another person might benefit.

If a person, even a child, signs an organ donor card and doctors provide a diagnosis of brain death, that person's liver or beating heart can be removed.

Vehicle registration forms, driver's license applications and other public documents provide tick boxes allowing people to give an advance directive to donate their organs. If the person is incapacitated or a minor, qualified relatives can also give the required permission. These directives typically state that the donor will provide the organs "after death," but without defining what constitutes death.

This is not informed consent. It's an insidious deception cloaked in high-sounding altruism.

Whether a person is unborn, disabled or extremely ill, we hold that the life is sacred and is our most fundamental freedom. Let no law or person in our nation demand the life of an innocent person under any pretext. Life is worthy of our insistent, determined and unrelenting protection.

Robert J. Cihak, M.D., is a Senior Fellow and Board Member of the Discovery Institute and a past president of the Association of American Physicians and Surgeons. Michael Arnold Glueck, M.D., is a multiple-award-winning writer who comments on medical-legal issues.


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Almost four decades ago, the fallacious concept of "brain death" was introduced to pry open the legal doors to the killing of another group of unnoticed innocents - people who agree to donate their vital organs at death. Deeply compassionate people are encouraged to...
Tuesday, 29 March 2005 12:00 AM
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