Human Exceptionalism

“Brain Dead” Boy “Dies”

The case of M.B., the 12-year-old boy whose Orthodox Jewish parents sought to have his life support continued after he was declared dead by neurological criteria, is over. From the story:

The boy had already been declared brain dead, but some adherents of Jewish religious law say death occurs only when the heart and lungs stop functioning. The family had asked a judge to prevent further tests for brain activity. The hospital argued that its “scarce resources” were being used “for the preservation of a deceased body.”

For the parents and those who do not accept “brain death” it means MB has actually died. For those who accept the concept, it means his body could no longer be kept functioning–which almost (but not) always happens with the bodies of those declared dead by neurological criteria.

After my earlier post about this matter, I received some serious private blowback because I accepted the concept of brain death, assuming proper diagnosis. My critic believes that brain death is a utilitarian fiction designed to permit organ harvesting. Because I deeply respect the blowbacker (if you will), I checked with my medical and ethics sources again about this issue, and found continued support for the concept of brain death. Our private dialogue continues.

We will discuss this issue further because it is becoming a source of renewed controversy. Some of the attacks on brain death are coming from utilitarian bioethicists and organ transplant ethicists–who are saying, in essence, that since we are killing some patients for their organs–the so-called brain dead who they claim are alive–why not also allow access to unquestionably living patients with irreversible catastrophic brain damage? Stopping this agenda remains my prime concern in this area.

But some, who are anything but utilitarian, also believe that these patients are not dead. Rather than allowing patients with lesser brain damage to be organ sources, these advocates argue, such people are not bodies but patients, and as such they should not be used as donors at all until they are declared dead by cardio/pulmonary criteria. If brain dead is not really dead, they are right.

But let’s leave the matter be for now. A young boy has died leaving rending grief in the tragedy’s wake. Our deepest sympathies to M.B.’s family who unquestionably tried to do right by their boy. May he rest in peace.


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