Threats to Life
New challenges to ethics, and to civilization


Conrad Black

Last week, I broached the question of an attempted shift in the long-standing cultural balance in America between the paramountcy of the Judeo-Christian values of the sanctity of life and primacy of the individual will in pursuit of conventional moral standards, and the moral relativism of an evolving rationalist Enlightenment. It is, very broadly, the abrasion between positive faith and humanist reason, and although I saw no evidence that Senator Santorum saw the issues in exactly this historic context, I think he deserves credit for raising these different perspectives in what has otherwise seemed to me the most intellectually vapid U.S. presidential campaign I have observed. (And I have observed all of them starting with the relatively distinguished rematch in 1956 between Dwight D. Eisenhower and Adlai E. Stevenson, very different men but both of undoubted stature.)

These questions are regularly played out as what are called the life issues, and are not usually argued along partisan lines. The great majority of people of all political shadings will agree that personal and national self-defense justify recourse to force in the absence of other effective measures. The death penalty for heinous crimes is more hotly contested, especially as there are now constant revelations of deliberate prosecution suppression of exculpatory evidence all over the country, and all execution techniques, including lethal injection, have been shown to be potentially cruelly painful. Abortion is a proverbially divisive subject, and the depredations of the pro-abortionists are becoming steadily more aggressive: now partial-birth abortions, and even the first stirrings of the scandalous enormity of post-birth abortion. Assisted suicide and euthanasia are heating up, fueled by the burgeoning organ-transplant industry.

The notion of salvaging organs and other vital body parts from the deceased carries an almost John Donne sensation of triumph over death: Important parts of a dead person soldier on almost indefinitely. But “organ harvesting,” as it is called, has become an astonishing $20 billion annual industry. Commissioned salesmen of the industry, called “wranglers,” approach next of kin of the potential donors in the waiting rooms of the emergency rooms and intensive-care units, while the patients are still struggling, however unpromisingly, for life. The implicit presumption that has been disseminated, that these donations are invariably the removal of well-functioning body parts from unambiguously dead people in disinterested pursuit of the prolongation and promotion of life, is, unfortunately, largely a fraud.

Parallel to the medical advances that made such transplants increasingly possible came a convenient redefinition of medical death that facilitated the work of the wranglers. This partly promising but also macabre process really got into high gear when a team of doctors at Harvard Medical School in 1968 redefined death from the irretrievable cessation of the beating of the heart to a complicated idea of the permanent death of the brain, which was entrenched in the Uniform Definition of Death Act of 1981 (UDDA). This essentially replaced science with philosophy and imposed the following criteria for death: absolute unresponsiveness and lack of movement and spontaneous breathing (anything prompted by respirators doesn’t count as evidence of life); no reflexes in eyes, ears, or muscles; flat encephalography; and no change after 24 hours (though there were also warnings of the mimicry of death, especially by hypothermia and drug intoxication).

These Harvard standards that were adopted by the whole country were not based on any patients or experiments. Death has been redefined as a lack of “personhood” for no discernible reason except to facilitate the organ-transplant industry. Thus, those deemed under the UDDA to be dead include not only people whose hearts are beating, however slowly and faintly, but also those who continue to eliminate cellular wastes, maintain a sustainable body temperature, heal wounds, fight infections, suffer fevers, and have functioning organs and tissues; supposedly brain-dead pregnant women who continue to gestate a fetus; and supposedly brain-dead children who continue to mature sexually and grow normally.

Transplant surgeons earn an average of $400,000 per year and rich finders’ fees are paid to organ-source hospitals. Paradoxically, the only parties who do not benefit financially from this vast and swiftly growing industry are the donors and their families. The initial reason for this exclusion is understandable, as the idea of sick people or their families’ selling their organs, whether posthumously or not, is gruesome and degrading. But so is a good deal of what goes on legally now. The wranglers sell the concept of the death of a loved one as being mitigated by helping to save or enhance the life of someone else; the idea is good and the scientific achievement is impressive, but the pecuniary ambitions of the wranglers and everyone else in the profit chain are disconcerting.

Most patients diagnosed as brain-dead are practically indistinguishable from routinely anesthetized patients. In fact, the practice of anesthetizing organ donors deemed to be brain-dead, i.e., dead and lacking “personhood,” is steadily increasing because of growing concern that they may suffer pain during the profound operations, which often require the rending and opening of the sternum. “Beating-heart cadavers,” as they are called, may be declared dead though they are breathing spontaneously and are vulnerable to pain.


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