Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Brain Death Doubters

By Michael Cook

Recent cases show that doctors still do not agree about when death actually happens.

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They don’t call them scare quotes for nothing. But the curlicues bracketing the term “brain death” indicate more than a fear of becoming a living corpse or of being a burden on a grieving family; they also underscore the uncertainty hovering over a medical consensus that “brain death” is death, period – no scare quotes. And because of some highly publicised cases in the United States it is turning into one of the liveliest debates in bioethics.

In November in Fort Worth, Texas, the relatives of 33-year-old Marlise Muñoz, a woman who was 14 weeks pregnant, wanted her to be taken off life support. “Brain dead” meant dead, they insisted. But her hospital refused, believing that it would be breaking a Texas law which mandated life support of a pregnant woman to save the life of a foetus.

On the other side of the country, in Oakland, California, 13-year-old Jahi McMath was declared brain dead in December and the hospital wanted her to be taken off life support. But her relatives refused, believing that she was still alive.

The contradictory responses of the hospitals and the relatives show that the public does not fully understand what “brain death” is. More unsettling was the revelation that bioethicists are not completely sure either.

Most of them, to be sure, agree with the consensus. In the New England Journal of Medicine, one of America’s...

The full text of this article can be purchased from Informit.