Bioethics Blogs

Reincarnation and discrimination

by Dominic Wilkinson @Neonatalethics

In California, in the last week, there have been further motions in a long running lawsuit relating to a brain-dead child. Oakland teenager Jahi McMath died after a tonsillectomy in December 2013. However, her parents rejected the medical diagnosis of brain death, and despite a Californian court providing judicial backing for doctors’ determination, organized for her to have a tracheostomy and be transferred to another medical facility. More than 18 months later it appears that Jahi’s heart is still beating and she is still connected to a breathing machine somewhere in New Jersey.

There are a host of challenging ethical questions in this case. One of these is raised by a curious inconsistency in US law around brain death. It isn’t a coincidence that this is where Jahi now resides. In New Jersey, statute specifically allows a religious exemption to the process of determining brain death that applies everywhere else in the US

“The death of an individual shall not be declared upon the basis of neurological criteria … when the licensed physician authorized to declare death, has reason to believe, … that such a declaration would violate the personal religious beliefs of the individual. In these cases, death shall be declared, and the time of death fixed, solely upon the basis of cardio-respiratory criteria ….”

The justification for this exemption is that some members of the New Jersey community reject the concept of brain death. Although all major religions accept brain death, some subgroups (for example some Orthodox Jews) do not.

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.