Philosophical debates about the definition of death: who cares?

J Med Philos. 2001 Oct;26(5):527-37. doi: 10.1076/jmep.26.5.527.3002.


Since the Harvard Committee's bold and highly successful attempt to redefine death in 1968 (Harvard Ad Hoc committee, 1968), multiple controversies have arisen. Stimulated by several factors, including the inherent conceptual weakness of the Harvard Committee's proposal, accumulated clinical experience, and the incessant push to expand the pool of potential organ donors, the lively debate about the definition of death has, for the most part, been confined to a relatively small group of academics who have created a large body of literature of which this issue of the Journal of Medicine and Philosophy is an example. Law and public policy, however, have remained essentially unaffected. This paper will briefly review the multiple controversies about defining death in an attempt to explain why they have and will remain unresolved in the academic community and have even less chance of being understood and resolved by politicians, legislators, and the general public. Considering this, we will end by suggesting the probable course of public policy and clinical practice in the decades ahead.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Bioethics
  • Brain Death / physiopathology
  • Death*
  • Humans
  • Thanatology*