Dr.Byrne: “Wesley Wrong” About Brain Death

by Wesley J. Smith

Dr. Paul Byrne and I disagree about the reality of properly diagnosed brain death. After much research and discussion with pro life and non pro life doctors on both sides of the question, I have concluded it is real–assuming proper methods are used.

Dr. Byrne strongly disagrees, and has spent years campaigning to convince others that those so declared are actually alive. His latest effort singles out me, so I thought I would bring it to your attention. From, “Jahi is not Truly Dead, Wesley Smith,” published at RenewAmerica:

Wesley wrote about Jahi, a patient in the hospital with a declaration of death by “one of two legal methods for declaring death.” If there are 2, Jahi must not be dead by the other method, or she would have been, or could have been declared dead by the other one, or how about declared dead by both methods?

Sorry, that’s a bit too sophistic for me. If the ventilator is taken off a brain dead person, breathing is impossible because there are no nerve stimuli from the brain to the diaphragm. That will lead to immediate cardiac arrest because of loss of blood flow to the heart. The only reason “heart death” doesn’t occur is the body remains animated through technological means. But a heart can still beat outside the body for awhile. That doesn’t mean that death hasn’t occurred.

And, I am sorry, but this is silly:

Wesley continues, “To be declared dead by neurological criteria does not mean there are no brain cells remaining alive.” Oh really? Would that be like “a little bit pregnant”?

But brain cells remain alive after declaration of heart death too–and for some time–which, as I have written, isn’t the same thing as the brain remaining a brain. 

This study found that brain cells obtained in an autopsy 8 hours after death could be maintained in a cell line. That means the cells were alive. Was the autopsy performed on a living body? Of course not! 

Indeed, different kinds of cells remain “alive” in a dead body for differing lengths of time, depending on conditions–which is why organs can be transplanted and still function.

This claim is plain wrong from both a legal and scientific basis:

You know that a differentiating point between so-called “brain dead” and so-called “persistent vegetative state (PVS)” is use of a ventilator for the patient declared “brain dead” and non-use of a ventilator for patient declared to be PVS. Both patients with a declaration of “brain death” and patients said to be in PVS have respiration and circulation.

That’s the wrong measurement. The brain dead body would not have any of that but for mechanical means! 

More, to the point, PVS patients have measurable brain activity, reflex function, and the like. Properly determined brain dead patients do not have any brain function, either in whole or in any constituent part, e.g. no reflex activity, etc..

Some PVS patients do need ventilators, others do not. A brain dead patient’s body cannot “breathe” without mechanical intervention, as I stated above. Indeed, as I understand it, one of the tests–plural–is to turn down the respirator to see if the patient has any independent breathing capability. Yes, and by definition the patient is a patient, and not a body.

I think that those who oppose “brain death” should argue their case vigorously, as Dr. Byrne does in this article. Please read it, all who are interested. It’s an important conversation.

But I am not convinced by their presentations. I’m just not.