Date: March 15, 2018
01) What Does It Mean to Die?
“In 1992, Shewmon was asked to consult on the case of a fourteen-year-old boy who, after falling off the hood of a moving car, had been declared brain-dead. The boy’s family was religious and insisted that he remain on a ventilator. His physicians, certain that his heart would soon fail, acceded to his parents’ request. He survived for sixty-three days and began puberty. “This case flew in the face of everything I had been taught regarding the universality and imminence of somatic demise in brain death,” Shewmon later wrote. “It forced me to rethink the whole thing.”
Shewmon began researching similar cases, and found a hundred and seventy-five people, many of whom were children or teen-agers, who lived for months or years after they were legally dead. The longest survivor was a boy who had been declared dead after contracting meningitis, when he was four. His heart beat for twenty more years, during which time he grew proportionally and recovered from minor wounds and infections, even though he had no identifiable brain structure and the outside of his brain had calcified. In 1997, in a paper called “Recovery from ‘Brain Death’: A Neurologist’s Apologia,” Shewmon disavowed his earlier views. He acknowledged that “dissenters from the ‘brain death’ concept are typically dismissed condescendingly as simpletons, religious zealots or pro-life fanatics,” and announced that he was joining their ranks.
Shewmon’s research on what he calls “chronic survival” after brain death helped prompt a new President’s council on bioethics, in 2008, to revisit the definition of death. The council’s report referred to Shewmon’s research thirty-eight times. Although it ultimately reaffirmed the validity of brain death, it abandoned the biological and philosophical justification presented by the 1981 President’s Commission—that a functioning brain was necessary for the body to operate as an “integrated whole.” Instead, the report said that the destruction of the brain was equivalent to death because it meant that a human being was no longer able to “engage in commerce with the surrounding world,” which is “what an organism ‘does’ and what distinguishes every organism from nonliving things.”
In a personal note appended to the end of the report, the chairman of the council, Edmund Pellegrino, expressed regret regarding the lack of empirical precision. He wrote that attempts to articulate the boundaries of death “end in some form of circular reasoning—defining death in terms of life and life in terms of death without a true ‘definition’ of one or the other.”
Very long article…covering a lot…
…This is both amazing, and unnerving.