After post-tonsillectomy bleeding, Jahi McMath suffered a cardiac arrest that damaged her brain. She was declared brain dead. The hospital wants to remove her ventilator, but the family is opposed. While there have been extensions granted by judges, the hospital, the medical establishment, the State of California, and the bioethics establishment have ganged up to force Ms. McMath’s ventilator to be removed. The hospital refuses to do a needed tracheotomy since “we can’t operate on a dead person” (this in spite of the fact that the hospital would support removing the organs of a person declared “brain dead” even though that is surgery as well). The hospital refuses to authorize transport, and under California law, the coroner “has to release the body.” This is an example of declaring a person dead by fiat and is a logical consequence of the acceptance of “brain death” criteria beginning in 1968.

Henry K. Beecher was the chairman of the Harvard committee on brain death. In an article in the 1968 JAMA, he argued that brain death should be considered death in part because organs could then be harvested from the patient while they are still perfused with oxygenated blood. In later articles he was more explicit in saying that death was redefined in the interests of organ transplantation. The 1981 Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA) or a compatible law has been passed in all fifty states. The law says death can either be declared after cardiopulmonary arrest or when the “whole brain” is dead. The President’s Commission report claimed that once the brain is dead, the body’s organic unity is gone.

Brain death criteria are not well-supported by evidence. Cicero Coimbra, a neurologist in Brazil, has noted that one of the tests to determine brain death, the apnea test, which involves removing the ventilator from a patient suspected of being brain dead for three minutes to check for spontaneous respiration. Dr. Coimbra points out that this test can itself cause brain death in patients who are not initially brain dead. He also argues that there is hope for some of these patients–hypothermia and other treatments to preserve brain cells may have good results. There have been cases in which a person was about to have organs removed for transplantation–and the person fully recovered. It is possible that removing a ventilator from Ms. McMath might take the life of a person who might not otherwise die from her head injury.

The entire brain is not dead in most cases of brain death–studies have found EEG activity in the majority of so-called “brain-dead” patients tested. For organs to be removed, body temperature has to be close to normal, and body temperature is mediated by the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain (along with the pituitary gland, part of the endocrine system). Supporters of brain death claim that these parts of the brain do not count–one wonders what else they would say would not count if further evidence of continuing brain activity is found.

As the recent President’s Council report points out, brain dead people are organic unities. Their blood circulates, and oxygen/carbon dioxide exchange continue. While the ventilator provides oxygenated air, machine dependence is not equivalent to death. Some conscious people are ventilator-dependent, and no sane person would consider them dead. The President’s Council identified death with loss of respiratory function combined with permanent loss of consciousness. Why, then, does ventilation count for life and not the heartbeat? Also, given that our knowledge is limited concerning the generation of consciousness in the brain, claims of permanent unconsciousness are arrogant at best.

I respect Arthur Caplan as a significant scholar in bioethics. What I cannot respect is his ignoring opponents of brain death in his public statements as if there is no current debate on the topic in academia. It reveals a lack of respect for opponents of brain death criteria, some of whom are physicians (Dr. Coimbra and Dr. Alan Shewmon as well as the late Richard Nilges practice or practiced neurology). Professor Caplan is surely aware that just because a law says death occurs at a certain point does not imply that the law is correct. Many bad laws have been passed–the UDDA may be another example of bad law.

Current bioethicists tend to think that patient autonomy is fine when the patient (or the patient’s family in the case of an incompetent patient) refuses care. But if a patient or patient’s family wants continued care, then there are appeals to “futility,” as if “futility” is not a value-laden term. “Death” is also a value-laden term and can be used for utilitarian ends such as justifying organ harvesting from heart-beating donors or to save money by removing a ventilator from a little girl. The hypocrisy of many doctors, hospital administrators, and “bioethicists” is sickening. The trashing of the value of Ms. McMath’s life is ethically monstrous. Given the history of movements such as the eugenics movement and experiments such as the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, I wonder what motivations are really in the minds of some of those most eager to remove Ms. McMath’s ventilator. Utilitarianism now trumps the value of human life, and medicine is corrupted to the point that I wonder whether some doctors are really practicing medicine any more.

If it were determined that Ms. McMath could not recover, the family’s wishes should be honored, even if the care Ms. McMath receives is “extraordinary care.” The family would also have the moral right to ask that the ventilator be turned off — but autonomy goes both ways and not only in the direction that cynical “bioethicists” desire.