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

Charles C. Camosy, PhD


September 23, 2013

In This Article

Hospitals Full of Dead Patients

The Ad Hoc Committee's report began with this remarkable paragraph[3]:

Our primary purpose is to define irreversible coma as a new criterion for death. There are two reasons why there is a need for a definition: (1) Improvements in resuscitative and supportive measures have led to increased efforts to save those who are desperately injured. Sometimes these efforts have only a partial success so that the result is an individual whose heart continues to beat but whose brain is irreversibly damaged. The burden is great on patients who suffer permanent loss of intellect, on their families, on the hospitals, and on those in need of hospital beds already occupied by these comatose patients. Obsolete criteria for the definition of death can lead to controversy in obtaining organs for transplantation.

Singer's response to the report is scathing. He notes the Harvard committee does not even attempt to argue that there is a need for a new definition of death because hospitals have a lot of patients in their wards who are really dead.

Instead, says Singer, the committee simply admits that a new definition is needed because irreversibly comatose patients were a great burden, not only on themselves (why being in an irreversible coma is a burden on the patient, the committee did not say), but also on their families, hospitals, and patients waiting for beds.

But even as honest as this seems, Singer points out that an earlier draft of the report had even more direct language about what was really going on. It claimed that a secondary issue was that "there is a great need for tissues and organs of, among others, the patient whose cerebrum has been hopelessly destroyed, in order to restore those who are salvageable." Upon seeing this draft, the dean of the medical school insisted that the committee change the report because "it suggests that you wish to define death in order to make viable organs more readily available to persons requiring transplants."

Shoddy Reasoning?

But not everyone who holds the brain death criterion is guilty of such shoddy reasoning. Singer argues that our culture is rejecting its "speciesist" Judeo-Christian heritage, which claimed that all living human beings are persons. How, asks Singer, can so many people reject the idea that a brain-dead patient is murdered when we take her organs while she is obviously still a living member of the species Homo sapiens?

His answer is that when we say that a brain-dead individual is no longer a living patient, we don't mean that she is a no longer a living human being. Instead, we mean that she is no longer a person. She is no longer a rational and self-aware creature who values her life.


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