Bioethics Blogs

Defining Death: The Case for Choice

Distinguished bioethicists Robert M. Veatch and Lainie F. Ross have adapted the first several chapters of their fabulous Transplantation Ethics to be a separate volume from Georgetown University Press: Defining Death: The Case for Choice.

“New technologies and medical treatments have complicated questions such as how to determine the moment when someone has died. The result is a failure to establish consensus on the definition of death and the criteria by which the moment of death is determined. This creates confusion and disagreement not only among medical, legal, and insurance professionals but also within families faced with difficult decisions concerning their loved ones.”

Veatch and Ross argue that the definition of death is not a scientific question but a social one rooted in religious, philosophical, or social beliefs. Drawing on history and recent court cases, the authors detail three potential definitions of death–the whole-brain concept; the circulatory, or somatic, concept; and the higher-brain concept. Because no one definition of death commands majority support, it creates a major public policy problem. The authors cede that society needs a default definition to proceed in certain cases, like those involving organ transplantation. But they also argue the decision-making process must give individuals the space to choose among plausible definitions of death according to personal beliefs.

1. Defining Death: An Introduction
The Emergence of the Controversy
Three Groups of Definitions
The Emergence of a Uniform Brain-oriented Definition
Irreversible vs. Permanent Loss of Function
Defining Death and Transplanting Organs
The Structure of the Book

2. The Dead Donor Rule and the Concept of Death
The Dead Donor Rule
Candidates for a Concept of “Death”
The Public Policy Question


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.