PRO-LIFE BASICS: Why can’t we say that “brain death” is the actual death of a person?

The problem with using a diagnosis of “brain death” to pronounce a person dead is that the definition of brain death itself is imprecise and can lead to killing a living person by removing a ventilator or feeding tube. Removal of a ventilator causes death by suffocation, while removal of a feeding tube causes death by starvation. Either way, “brain death” itself didn’t cause the death; death was imposed on the living patient.

“Brain death” is an elastic term that actually becomes a death sentence when used as a diagnosis. Speaking at an international congress on organ transplants, Pope Benedict XVI said, “[T]he minimum suspicion of arbitrariness is not allowed, and where total certainty has not been reached, the principle of caution should prevail” (Zenit, Nov. 7, 2008). In other words, if the patient shows signs of life, ending those signs by whatever means is killing.

This happened recently to expectant mother Marlise Munoz, who was declared “braindead,” but was on a ventilator. A ventilator helps living human beings breathe—not dead ones. In her case, the ventilator was part of the minimal care she was receiving, not extraordinary care. Tragically, her family obtained a court order to remove her from the ventilator, and when she died on January 26, the 22-weekold baby she was carrying died as well.

The Jahi McMath case is similar in many ways. McMath is a teenager recently diagnosed by some as “brain-dead”; yet she too was on a ventilator. Her parents fought to keep her alive and won the legal right to move her to another facility, which they did on January 6.

Many now view the term “brain death” as the equivalent of actual death. Such a conclusion excuses caregivers from providing further care for the patient in question, and represents a callous disregard for the integrity and human rights of the neurologically compromised patient.

Because the “brain death” diagnosis is inexact, it can easily be abused. This begs the question, what is death? Death is the total cessation of all brain activity, including the brain stem, combined with the cessation of cardiopulmonary functions. Neither the cessation of brain activity nor the cessation of cardiopulmonary functions alone is sufficient. A person is either truly dead or he is still living. The “brain death” diagnosis indicates that, in fact, the patient is not actually dead.

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About the author

Judie Brown

Judie Brown is president of American Life League and served 15 years as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life.