Shades of Personhood: A Worry About Definitions of Death for Transplant Purposes

Although brain death, which is an “irreversible cessation of all the functions of the brain, including the brain stem” (see article), has been used as a pretty safe definition of a person’s death, transplant advocates are calling to revive a different definition of death, namely cardiac death or circulatory death, which is “an irreversible cessation of circulation and heartbeat and breathing” (see article).  In such cases, CPR is not performed and after a short wait, organs are removed.  However, the problem is that there is no guarantee that the heart won’t restart by itself, so the question of how long to wait becomes a tricky one.  Some hospitals wait five minutes while others only two.  The trouble with waiting too long is that organs cut off from a nourishing blood supply cannot last very long.  Surgeons in Michigan are starting to place donors on ECMOs (heart-lung machines) even before the donor’s heart stops beating.  This ensures that the organs are not deprived of nourishment, but it also further blurs the line between life and death.

The Michigan doctors say the approach is a blessing. Family members have more time to say goodbye and a chance at getting some solace from their loss.  “They are so pleased that the last act of the person’s life on Earth was to donate organs and save other people’s lives,” Punch said.  Transplant surgeons say the chance to turn a death into an opportunity for life is a godsend. (See article)

Defining death is not as straight forward as it might seem.  Of course, there are certainly clear cut cases.  Taking a stroll through a cemetery reveals hundreds such cases.  However, the moment that marks the exact boundary between life and death is much harder to define.  Perhaps this is because there is no such moment, death being a process of a certain duration.  Technological advancements such as ECMOs, however, can extend this process far beyond the short period it would normally take.  Are such patients essentially in a state of dying, but not really dead or are they essentially alive due to the fact that the process of dying had been interrupted by the machines?

Just because machines are doing the breathing does not mean that the person is dead.  By that definition, artificial hearts or pace makers would make the people who have them into walking corpses.  Also, just because someone is in a coma, does not mean that they are ready to be harvested for organs.  Perhaps an argument for the practice of recirculating blood in order to keep organs nourished hangs on the irreversibility of the donor’s condition.  But again, not only is “irreversibility” not a certainty in all cases, but irreversibility itself does not seem to be reason enough to harvest organs from a living human being.  We don’t generally think that extracting organs from patients in permanent vegetative states is permissible, even if such states are by definition irreversible and if such patients happen to be organ donors.

This is certainly a tricky question, especially since the patients involved are donors who have agreed to donate their organs after they die, but unless their advance directives state that organs are to be extracted while alive as long as it happens at the discretion of the doctors or family, the problem with the definition of death will continue to be an issue.  Citing the number of lives that can be saved by the practice of extracting organs from a living person (even if irreversibly damaged), should not be used as an argument for such a practice particularly since the same argument can apply to extracting organs from any living person (I have in mind the classic objection to utilitarianism here).

I am not entertaining slippery slope worries, but I think that it is important to stress that the subtle details regarding our practices of extracting organs for transplantation should be thoughtfully considered, reasoned through, and explained.  One moral worry I have is that such patients may not be viewed as persons by doctors eagerly waiting to extract vital organs in order to save the lives of other (more obvious?) persons.  Can what the Michigan doctors are doing be done with a genuine air of respect and dignity that is owed to persons?  Perhaps it can, but the reasons for such practices must reflect this respect and dignity.  I am simply not convinced that, at least in all cases, merely focusing on what the family and other patients get out of it constitutes reasons that are saturated with genuine respect for the personhood of the donor.

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