Role of brain death and the dead-donor rule in the ethics of organ transplantation

Crit Care Med. 2003 Sep;31(9):2391-6. doi: 10.1097/01.CCM.0000090869.19410.3C.


The "dead-donor rule" requires patients to be declared dead before the removal of life-sustaining organs for transplantation. The concept of brain death was developed, in part, to allow patients with devastating neurologic injury to be declared dead before the occurrence of cardiopulmonary arrest. Brain death is essential to current practices of organ retrieval because it legitimates organ removal from bodies that continue to have circulation and respiration, thereby avoiding ischemic injury to the organs. The concept of brain death has long been recognized, however, to be plagued with serious inconsistencies and contradictions. Indeed, the concept fails to correspond to any coherent biological or philosophical understanding of death. We review the evidence and arguments that expose these problems and present an alternative ethical framework to guide the procurement of transplantable organs. This alternative is based not on brain death and the dead-donor rule, but on the ethical principles of nonmaleficence (the duty not to harm, or primum non nocere) and respect for persons. We propose that individuals who desire to donate their organs and who are either neurologically devastated or imminently dying should be allowed to donate their organs, without first being declared dead. Advantages of this approach are that (unlike the dead-donor rule) it focuses on the most salient ethical issues at stake, and (unlike the concept of brain death) it avoids conceptual confusion and inconsistencies. Finally, we point out parallel developments, both domestically and abroad, that reflect both implicit and explicit support for our proposal.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Death*
  • Ethics, Medical*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Organ Transplantation / ethics*
  • Tissue Donors / supply & distribution
  • Tissue and Organ Procurement / ethics*
  • United States