Defining Death

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Defining Death

Alan D. Shewmon, the professor of pediatric neurology at UCLA Medical School believes that "until the turn of the decade, most people thought that 'brain death' was a settled issue; it no longer is. An increasing number of experts have begun to re-examine critically and to reject various key underlying assumptions" (Shewmon 1998). Determination of death has obviously become more complex, and the questions of when death is final require answers. According to most recent definitions, if the brain is entirely and irreversibly destroyed, a person can no longer relate to the world. As with any definition however, there are exceptions, gray areas, and blurred lines. We cannot strive for one all-encompassing definition. We will always need to modify our definitions based on the changing beliefs of the community, and the changes in technology.

Until midway through the 20th century, it was believed that the functioning of the cardiac, respiratory, and brain systems were necessary for life. Before a person could be pronounced dead, all three of these had to cease functioning. It is not surprising that with no other proof, the heart was considered the organ that determined life because "it was clear that, when the respiration and heart stopped, the brain would die in a few minutes" (Ad Hoc 1968).

We now know however, that it is the brain that controls the function of these other closed systems. Without the brain, the heart and lungs can continue their normal function, and this can be the case "even when there is not the remotest possibility of an individual recovering consciousness" (Ad Hoc. 1968). Dr. Denton Cooley, who in 1968 had been in charge of more heart transplants than any other surgeon, and with more succ...

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