Bioethics News

Brain death: experts divided on how death is defined

Pdf logo“… it is recommendable to delve deeper into the biophilosophical aspects of brain death as a concept of death, in order to rebut the criticisms that brain death has in some academic circles…”

In the November 2014 issue of the American Journal of Bioethics (1), professor James L. Bernat reflects on where the concept of brain death is headed. The reason for this is the fact that there is still reticence as regards this concept in the public and academic spheres. Professor Bernat refers to two recent cases in which the diagnosis of brain death led to clinical-ethical-care problems that emerged in the media and public opinion.   One of these is the case of Jahi McMath, a child who suffered severe anoxic encephalopathy, as a result of which she developed symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of brain death. Jahi’s parents refused to accept the diagnosis of death, and requested that the patient’s treatment be maintained, as they did not consider her dead. The second case is that of Marlise Muñoz, a pregnant patient, also declared brain death and whose physicians decided to maintain life support measures (connection to a respirator, and maintenance of other treatments), based on the fact that the survival of the foetus was at stake. Marlise’s family asked that these support measures be withdrawn, since Marlise was considered clinically and legally dead.

Persistence of controversy

The persistence of controversies in relation to the concept of brain death is striking, although it is over 40 years since the birth of this concept of death of the person, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) in 1968 (2).

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.