Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine (Jun 2007)

Seeking an ethical and legal way of procuring transplantable organs from the dying without further attempts to redefine human death

  • Evans David

Journal volume & issue
Vol. 2, no. 1
p. 11


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Abstract Because complex organs taken from unequivocally dead people are not suitable for transplantation, human death has been redefined so that it can be certified at some earlier stage in the dying process and thereby make viable organs available without legal problems. Redefinitions based on concepts of "brain death" have underpinned transplant practice for many years although those concepts have never found universal philosophical acceptance. Neither is there consensus about the clinical tests which have been held sufficient to diagnose the irreversible cessation of all brain function – or as much of it as is deemed relevant – while the body remains alive. For these reasons, the certification of death for transplant purposes on "brain death" grounds is increasingly questioned and there has been pressure to return to its diagnosis on the basis of cardiac arrest and the consequent cessation of blood circulation throughout the body. While superficially a welcome return to the traditional and universally accepted understanding of human death, examination of the protocols using such criteria for the diagnosis of death prior to organ removal reveals a materially different scenario in which the circulatory arrest is not certainly final and purely nominal periods of arrest are required before surgery begins. Recognizing the probably unresolvable conflict between allowing enough time to pass after truly final circulatory arrest for a safe diagnosis of death and its minimization for the sake of the wanted organs, Verheijde and colleagues follow others in calling for the abandonment of the "dead donor rule" and the enactment of legislation to permit the removal of organs from the dying, without pretence that they are dead before that surgery. While it may be doubted whether such a "paradigm change" in the ethics of organ procurement would be accepted by society, their call for its consideration as a fully and fairly informed basis for organ donation is to be applauded.