There has been a good bit of debate lately in bioethics circles over the concept and proper definition of death. The disagreement is between those who think that the cessation of brain activity or ‘brain-death’ is sufficient for death, on the one hand, and those who think that brain-dead patients whose circulatory systems continue to function are still alive, on the other. Consider, for example, the recent tragic case of Jahi McMath. McMath suffered complications from a surgery to correct sleep apnea which resulted in cardiac arrest and her being placed on a ventilator. Shortly after physicians at Oakland Children’s Hospital pronounced her brain-dead and so legally dead. Her family, however, disagreed, and appealed to the courts for Jahi to be maintained via mechanical ventilation and PEG tube.
Although Jahi’s family disagrees with the claim that she is brain-dead (insisting that she is merely ‘brain-damaged’), suppose the Oakland physicians are correct in their diagnosis of brain death. Nonetheless, even after the pronouncement of brain-death Jahi’s body continued to exhibit the sort of homeodynamic equilibrium—at least for the time being, and with assistance from mechanical ventilation and other life-sustaining interventions—characteristic of living organisms. It was warm to the touch; her heart continued to pump blood through her veins; and so on. Indeed the bodies of brain dead patients have in some cases remained functional for weeks and even months, performing such surprising feats as undergoing puberty and even gestating fetuses. This has led certain physicians and philosophers to question whether brain death is really sufficient for death. Patients who are truly dead, after all, could not be warm to the touch or gestate fetuses. Could they?
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