The concept of “brain death” (the neurological basis for legally declaring a person dead) has caused much controversy since its inception. In this regard, it has been generally perceived that the Catholic Church has officially affirmed the “brain death” criterion. The address of Pope >>John Paul II in 2000 shows, however, that he only gave it a conditional acceptance, one which requires that several medical and philosophical presuppositions of the “brain death” standard be fulfilled. This article demonstrates, taking into consideration both the empirical evidence and the Church’s Thomistic anthropology, that the presuppositions have not been fulfilled.
In the ongoing ‘brain death’ controversy, there has been a constant push for the use of the ‘higher brain’ formulation as the criterion for the determination of death on the grounds that braindead individuals are no longer human beings because of their irreversible loss of consciousness and mental functions. This essay demonstrates that such a position flows from a Lockean view of human persons. Compared to the ‘consciousness-related definition of death,’ the substance view is superior, especially because it provides a holistic vision of the human person, and coheres with the perennial axiom about the ‘whole and parts.’ Keywords: death, brain death, substance view, Lockean view, whole and parts, holism. Since the 1968 publication of the Harvard Ad Hoc Committee introducing irreversible coma (le coma dépassé) as the neurological standard for the determination of death,1 the controversy over this criterion has remained unrelenting. The current medico-legal practice of the neurological standard is underpinned by the ‘whole brain death (BD)’ paradigm, asserting that individuals who meet the criteria of the neurological standard are biologically dead. Several philosophical rationales have been advanced to justify this claim.2 Since the 1990s, numerous publications have demonstrated the untenability of ‘whole BD,’ both at the empirical and conceptual levels.3 Nevertheless, in the interests of organ transplantation, current medical and legal policies continue to maintain the view that brain-dead (BD) individuals are dead. A contributing factor to this status quo is the implicit shift toward the ‘higher BD’ view.4 This view, of which there are divergent philosophical forms, insists on a sharp distinction between the human person and human organism, and therefore, a distinction between their respective deaths. In this issue of Diametros, John Lizza reaffirms his long-held ‘higher BD’ position, asserting that “the irreversible loss of consciousness and every other mental function [is] the criterion for determining [human] death.”5 Most of the ideas presented in his current paper can be found in Lizza’s earlier publications.