Human Exceptionalism

Should Religious Views Determined Death’s Definition?

There is a tragic case ongoing in Washington DC that involves the definition of death and religious belief. A 12-year-old boy, known publicly as M.B., has been declared dead by neurological criteria (popularly known as brain dead). The doctors want to terminate the medical machinery that is keeping the boy’s body functioning. But the family, who are Orthodox Jews, claim that since his heart is still beating, under their religion, he is still alive, and thus they want the “treatment” to continue. From the story:

Judge William Jackson told Jeffrey Zuckerman, a partner at Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle representing the boy’s family, and Kenneth Rosenau, a name partner at Rosenau & Rosenau representing the hospital, that before he could rule on whether to suspend treatment–which includes drugs to sustain cardiac activity and a ventilator to maintain breathing–the hospital had to prove that M.B. is in fact dead under D.C. law.

Rosenau told the judge that the hospital understands the grief the family must be going through, but continuing to treat what he called “the earthly remains” is a strain on resources that could be better used to treat other children. The hospital has 32 beds in its intensive care unit and receives new admissions every day, Smith said in her affidavit.

I believe, assuming the boy really is brain dead–I think there should be an outside consultation to confirm it–that the hospital has the right argument here. Death is not something that should be one thing for some people and something else for others.

Ironically, some bioethicists support that very approach, such as Georgetown University’s Robert Veatch who wishes to permit people to decide ahead of time what is “dead” for them. Under this view, the hospital would have to continue to sustain the M.B.s body, while in the next bed, doctors would be permitted to actually kill a biologically living person for organs. (I do not accept the “bioethics” definition of personhood.)

No. Society has the duty to create the legal definitions of dead that can be determined based on objective medical criteria. If, as some believe, brain dead proves not to be really dead, then those diagnosed with the condition will have to be treated like living patients. But until then–and I know it is a controversial issue–the hospital should be permitted to apply the law.

(This case differs from the Golubchuck case in Canada significantly. That was a futile care theory case in which the hospital wanted to take an unquestionably living man off of life support, which would have violated his and the family’s religion, again Orthodox Judaism, and desires about non elective treatment.)

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