The comatose patient, the ontology of death, and the decision to stop treatment


Abstract
In this paper I address three problems posed by modern medical technology regarding comatose dying patients. The first is that physicians sometimes hide behind the tests for whole-brain death rather than make the necessary human decision. The second is that the tests themselves betray a metaphysical judgment about death that may be ontologically faulty. The third is that discretion used by physicians and patients and/or family in deciding to cease treatment when the whole-brain death criteria may not be met are sometimes open to challenge. In each of these problems I find that the operative concept of death relates to life itself. This point is expanded by examining the uses of the word death in our language and culture. From these I formulate an initial ontology of death. In it, death is described through a relationship with life, rather than as an absence of life, of consciousness, awareness, or sensation. This ontology then leads to a proposal for an ethics of discretion about the discontinuation of treatment for comatose patients.
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