Bioethics Blogs

Taking Science Seriously in the Debate on Death and Organ Transplantation

Michael Nair-Collins has just published “Taking Science Seriously in the Debate on Death and Organ Transplantation” in the Nov.-Dec. Hastings Center Report.

The effort to develop international guidelines for determination of death purports to start with an objective understanding of the biology of death. So far, however, it is showing once again how moral and metaphysical claims about death often masquerade as scientific facts.

The concept of death and its relationship to organ transplantation continue to be sources of debate and confusion among academics, clinicians, and the public. Recently, an international group of scholars and clinicians, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, met in the first phase of an effort to develop international guidelines for determination of death. The goal of this first phase was to focus on the biology of death and the dying process while bracketing legal, ethical, cultural, and religious perspectives. The next phase of the project will include a broader group of stakeholders in the development of clinical practice guidelines and will use expert consensus on biomedical criteria for death from the first phase as scientific input into normative deliberation about appropriate policies and practices.

Surely, science alone cannot resolve the normative and philosophical questions intertwined in debates about moral status, legal and moral rights, the ethics of killing, and personhood and the nature of the self; however, scientific input is necessary for informed moral deliberation. An objective and unbiased investigation of the biology of death is independent of, and should be undertaken prior to, an analysis of the normative questions engendered by debate about determination of death.

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.