Bioethics Blogs

Brain death and uncertainty

The case of Jahi McMath has been back in the news. She was declared brain dead Dec. 12, 2013 after she went into cardiac arrest following a tonsillectomy surgery in California. Her mother did not accept the diagnosis of brain death and moved her to New Jersey where state law allows the continuation of medical treatment for a person who has been declared brain dead if the family has a religious objection. She continues on a ventilator in a home setting with 24 hour a day care. Her mother says she is able to respond to questions with hand movements and is trying to get her death certificate in California revoked so they can move back to California. Experts are debating whether she is truly brain dead or not.

With only news reports to go by I cannot determine who is right about whether this unfortunate child has brain function or not, but the situation raises some very interesting ethical questions. One of them is the question of how certain we need to be when a person is declared to be dead. Those of us who make medical decisions realize that almost every diagnosis has some level of uncertainty. We have to learn to live with making decisions without absolute certainty and many of those are life and death decisions. But when we determine that a person is dead and that we will cease any attempts at prolonging life and bury the body, how certain do we need to be? When cardiopulmonary resuscitation does not result in return of cardiac activity should we stop after 15 minutes or 30 or longer?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.