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Death and Dying - Brain Death

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Brain Death

In traditional Western medical practice, death was defined as the cessation of the body's circulatory and respiratory (blood pumping and breathing) functions. With the invention of machines that provide artificial circulation and respiration that definition has ceased to be practical and has been modified to include another category of death called brain death. People can now be kept alive using such machines even when their brains have effectively died and are no longer able to control their bodily functions. Moreover, in certain medical procedures, such as open-heart surgery, individuals do not breathe or pump blood on their own. Since it would be wrong to declare as dead all persons whose circulatory or respiratory systems are temporarily maintained by artificial means (a category that includes many patients undergoing surgery), the medical community has determined that an individual may be declared dead if brain death has occurred—that is, if the whole brain has ceased to function, or has entered what is sometimes called a persistent vegetative state. An individual whose brain stem (lower brain) has died is not able to maintain the vegetative functions of life, including respiration, circulation, and swallowing. According to the Uniform Determination of Death Act (§ 1, U.L.A. [1980]), from which most states have developed their brain death statutes, "An individual who has sustained either (1) irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory function, or (2) irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead."

Brain death becomes a crucial issue in part because of the importance of organ transplants. A brain-dead person may have organs—a heart, a liver, and lungs, for example—that could save other people's lives. And for an individual to be an acceptable organ donor, he or she must be dead but still breathing and circulating blood. If a brain-dead person is maintained on artificial respiration until his or her heart fails, then these usable organs would perish. Thus, the medical category of brain death makes it possible to accomplish another goal: saving lives with organ transplants.

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