The Washington Post today brings us a front page story about the deterioration of the brain death standard in organ donation. Surgeons in Denver, in a federally-funded study, have been removing the hearts of brain-damaged newborns just a minute or so after they are disconnected from life support, to transplant them into other newborns with heart problems. By the usual (and legal) standard of death, these “donors” are not dead, and are killed by the extraction of the organs. There is certainly room for debate about the brain death standard itself, but as Boston University bioethicist George Annas is quoted saying in the article, “I understand that they would like us to change the definition of death, but they can’t do that by themselves. It’s very problematic to start treating a baby as an organ donor before it’s dead.”
James Burdick, director of the division of transplantation at the Health Resources and Services Administration (an arm of the federal department of Health and Human Services), and the only federal official cited in the article, is quoted saying that the argument about whether the babies in question are dead is just “fussy semantics.” Great.
The definition of death is no simple matter, and the argument that changes ought to be made to the legal definition to allow for more and easier organ donation well deserves a full hearing, but to redefine it by simply defying and ignoring it is no way to proceed. The attitude on display in this article — a crisis mentality in which the Orwellian term “organ shortage” is taken to be the chief problem to be solved, and respect for and protection of the dying an obstacle to solving it — poses some major barriers to level-headed public policy in this area: policy that takes account both of the need to help the sick who can be helped and the need to protect the sick who can’t be helped. It is the kind of problem we will see more and more in our politics (and is one subject of my forthcoming book, due out next month, if you’ll allow the cheap plug on such a weighty topic).