Death of the Brain Is Not the Death of the Human Being

Charles C. Camosy, PhD


September 23, 2013

In This Article

The Dead Donor Rule

Charles C. Camosy, PhD

As long as we continue to insist that patients must be dead before we take their organs for transplant (the "dead donor rule"), determining whether they are dead (or not) is of the utmost importance. But it is also quite difficult.

The longer a medical team waits to procure the organs, the less likely it is that the transplant will be successful. But the more quickly they take the organs, the more likely we run the risk of killing an innocent person to take their organs for the benefit of someone else. It is a classic Catch-22.

Determining who counts as a living patient, of course, is not the task of science or medicine. It is the task of philosophy and theology. Although our culture struggles to make room for multiple philosophical and theological approaches in the midst of multiculturalism, a patient is currently defined as a living member of the species Homo sapiens. All human animals count as persons, and nonhuman animals (rightly or wrongly) are excluded, not because "science" tells us so -- but because our Western ideology does. Although as will see later, it is not clear that everyone is working with this supposedly accepted understanding.

When Is the Patient Dead?

So when may we take the vital organs from patient A and give them to patient B? The answer: When patient A has died. But when has patient A died? The answer to that question is complicated, but way to answer the question without much specificity is to say, "when the human organism has died."

But our understanding of what "death" is comes from a more fundamental definition of life. In order to be considered living, a human organism must be able to integrate and coordinate the physical and mental functions of her body. She must process nutrition, eliminate waste, and exhibit growth. She must have homeostasis. If she can integrate these functions as a coherent organism with homeostasis, then she is alive -- but if she cannot, then she is dead.


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