Since 1969, the Harvard Criteria on Brain Death have provided guidelines for declaring a patient dead, even if the heart is still beating. This has allowed for a significant expansion of organ transplants. Donation occurs while the organ is still viable, resulting in better outcomes for recipients. As a legal, ethical determinant of the end of life, brain death is enshrined as firm doctrine in all 50 states.
Two recent cases in the news, however, have called brain death into question. In Oakland, California, 13 year-old Jahi McMath suffered a catastrophic complication of an operation to treat her sleep apnea. In Forth Worth, Texas, Marlese Munoz, 14 weeks pregnant, suffered a massive pulmonary embolism. In both cases, the patient was declared brain dead. In the case of Jahi, her parents insisted that life support be maintained, in the vain hope that she might improve and survive. With Marlese, her parents wanted to have life support discontinued, but the state intervened to keep her on the ventilator because of the pregnancy.
There are separate ethical issues in the Munoz case, but one thing should be clear: neither parents nor the state should have the power to determine when a patient has died. That is a clinical determination, and brain death is well established in ethics and law. Now, it is certainly reasonable for doctors to permit families to “say goodbye” to a loved one before turning off life support, but that does not change the facts. It is not a matter for debate: both California and Texas law permit doctors to end treatments under such circumstances, even over family objections, and protect physicians against liability for doing so.
Please note: Brain death is not an assault on the sanctity of human life. Religious voices that object to brain death often assert a sort of “Christian vitalism,” that claims physical life should trump everything, perhaps even God’s sovereignty. Modern medical ethics is complicated enough without adding this confusion.