An ethical choice masquerading as medical fact

The heart, in my assessment, of one of the year’s top long-form journalism pieces:

In 1967, Henry Beecher, a renowned bioethicist at Harvard Medical School, wrote to a colleague, “It would be most desirable for a group at Harvard University to come to some subtle conclusion as to a new definition of death.” Permanently comatose patients, maintained by mechanical ventilators, were “increasing in numbers over the land and there are a number of problems which should be faced up to.”

Beecher created a committee comprising men who already knew one another: ten doctors, one lawyer, one historian, and one theologian. In less than six months, they completed a report, which they published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The only citation in the article was from a speech by the Pope. They proposed that the irreversible destruction of the brain should be defined as death, giving two reasons: to relieve the burden on families and hospitals, which were providing futile care to patients who would never recover, and to address the fact that “obsolete criteria for the definition of death can lead to controversy in obtaining organs for transplantation,” a field that had developed rapidly; in the previous five years, doctors had performed the world’s first transplant of a pancreas, a liver, a lung, and a heart. In an earlier draft, the second reason was stated more directly: “There is great need for the tissues and organs of the hopelessly comatose in order to restore to health those who are still salvageable.” (The sentence was revised after Harvard’s medical dean wrote that “the connotation of this statement is unfortunate.”)

In the next twelve years, twenty-seven states rewrote their definitions of death to conform to the Harvard committee’s conclusions. Thousands of lives were prolonged or saved every year because patients declared brain-dead—a form of death eventually adopted by the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and most of Europe—were now eligible to donate their organs. The philosopher Peter Singer described it as “a concept so desirable in its consequences that it is unthinkable to give up, and so shaky on its foundations that it can scarcely be supported.” The new death was “an ethical choice masquerading as a medical fact,” he wrote.

Rachel Aviv, What Does It Mean to Die?, New Yorker 2/5/18 (emphasis added).

In BrainDeathLand, Orwellianisms like dead patients voluntarily donating their organs are rampant, along with bullying like “She’s dead and if you don’t take her off the ventilator, she’ll do gross things like decomposing to prove it.”

Reader John @ReaderJohn
My main blog is the Tipsy Teetotaler,