The intractable problems with brain death and possible solutions

Abstract

Brain death has been accepted worldwide medically and legally as the biological state of death of the organism. Nevertheless, the literature has described persistent problems with this acceptance ever since brain death was described. Many of these problems are not widely known or properly understood by much of the medical community. Here we aim to clarify these issues, based on the two intractable problems in the brain death debates. First, the metaphysical problem: there is no reason that withstands critical scrutiny to believe that BD is the state of biological death of the human organism. Second, the epistemic problem: there is no way currently to diagnose the state of BD, the irreversible loss of all brain functions, using clinical tests and ancillary tests, given potential confounders to testing. We discuss these problems and their main objections and conclude that these problems are intractable in that there has been no acceptable solution offered other than bare assertions of an ‘operational definition’ of death. We present possible ways to move forward that accept both the metaphysical problem - that BD is not biological death of the human organism - and the epistemic problem - that as currently diagnosed, BD is a devastating neurological state where recovery of sentience is very unlikely, but not a confirmed state of irreversible loss of all [critical] brain functions. We argue that the best solution is to abandon the dead donor rule, thus allowing vital organ donation from patients currently diagnosed as BD, assuming appropriate changes are made to the consent process and to laws about killing.

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