A proposed change to U.S. law concerning the determination of brain death has drawn criticism from a group of doctors, lawyers, and philosophers, who say that the proposed changes, among other things, could lead to incorrect diagnoses of brain death in patients who are in fact still alive.
In a statement published May 14 in the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy, a group of over 100 “experts in medicine, bioethics, philosophy, and law” affirmed that while the law regarding brain death does need revision, a proposed revision known as the RUDDA “is not the way to do it.”
Among the signers are several Catholic doctors and ethicists who work at Catholic universities.
“We span a wide range of professions, world views, and nationalities,” the statement reads.
“We do not necessarily agree with each other on all aspects of the brain-death debate or on fundamental ethical principles. We do agree that the UDDA needs to be revised and that the RUDDA is not the way to revise it.”
The RUDDA is one proposal currently under consideration by a study committee of the nonprofit Uniform Law Commission, convened during August 2020.
If the Uniform Law Commission decides to accept the RUDDA, state legislatures across the country could follow suit in adopting the revised law.
What is brain death?
Brain death, also called death by neurological criteria, is the practice of declaring a person dead based on the loss of brain function, rather than the stoppage of the heart and breathing.
Brain death is a commonly accepted standard for declaring a person dead, and is used by doctors dozens of times every day throughout the United States. According to the 1981 guidelines of the American Medical Association, brain death entails the “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain.”
Brain-dead donors are, today, the primary source of organ transplants. Organs such as the heart, lungs, and pancreas can be— and are— harvested from brain dead donors as close to the time of death as possible.
While the term “brain death” is not found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, St. John Paul II asserted in 2000 that, if properly diagnosed, the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain function seems a valid way to assess with moral certainty that a person has died.
Catholic doctors and ethicists today largely echo St. John Paul II in stating that brain death, when properly diagnosed, is not a “kind” of death; it is simply death, period. However, brain death remains a hotly debated topic among some Catholic medical professionals and ethicists.
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