Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas, Rome, Italy

Though legally accepted and widely practiced, the “brain death” standard for the determination of death has remained a controversial issue, especially in view of the occurrence of “chronic brain death” survivors. This paper critically re-evaluates the clinical test-criteria for “brain death,” taking into account what is known about the neuro-critical care of severe brain injury. The medical evidence, together with the understanding of the moral role of the physician toward the patient present before him or her, indicate that an alternative approach should be offered to the deeply comatose patient.

The “brain death” standard as a criterion of death is closely associated with the need for transplantable organs from heart-beating donors. Are all of these potential donors really dead, or does the documented evidence of patients destined for organ harvesting who improve, or even recover to live normal lives, call into question the premise underlying “brain death”? The aim of this paper is to re-examine the notion of “brain death,” especially its clinical test-criteria, in light of a broad framework, including medical knowledge in the field of neuro-intensive care and the traditional ethics of the medical profession. I will argue that both the empirical medical evidence and the ethics of the doctor–patient relationship point to an alternative approach toward the severely comatose patient (potential braindead donor).