Discussing Brain Death
Written by: Leah Jeunnette, Ph.D.(c)
The discussion of brain death has made recent headlines again. There are often questions as to what qualifies as brain death. Brain death is a widely held medical definition of death. A physician monitors brain activity (or lack of) and when criteria are met, the patient is declared brain dead. The base level of criteria that the law agrees upon is found in the Uniform Determination of Death Act. When brain death is declared, treatment and care are stopped, and the death certificate is issued.
Jahi McMath’s parents disagreed with the determination of brain death due to religious convictions that only hold to cardiopulmonary death. Thus, McMath was transferred to New Jersey where laws allow for religious exemptions.
For Marlise Munoz and Robyn Benton, the brain death issue was complicated by their pregnancies. When a pregnant woman is declared brain dead, discussion arises regarding continuing life-sustaining treatment for the benefit of the fetus. Viability of the fetus and stage of the pregnancy are taken into consideration.
Acceptance of death and determination of brain death are often confused. It is not up to the family or friends to acknowledge brain death; it is an accepted medical definition of death. Medicine is consistently developing new technologies, and the determination of death changes along with those technologies. We need to continue the discussion to better understand determination of death. It may not be an easy discussion, but necessary to prevent confusion and misunderstanding.