Brain death - too flawed to endure, too ingrained to abandon

J Law Med Ethics. 2007 Summer;35(2):273-81. doi: 10.1111/j.1748-720X.2007.00136.x.


The concept of brain death has become deeply ingrained in our health care system. It serves as the justification for the removal of vital organs like the heart and liver from patients who still have circulation and respiration while these organs maintain viability. On close examination, however, the concept is seen as incoherent and counterintuitive to our understandings of death. In order to abandon the concept of brain death and yet retain our practices in organ transplantation, we need to either change the definition of death or no longer maintain a commitment to the dead donor rule, which is an implicit prohibition against removing vital organs from individuals before they are declared dead. After exploring these two options, the author argues that while new definitions of death are problematic, alternatives to the dead donor rule are both ethically justifiable and potentially palatable to the public. Even so, the author concludes that neither of these approaches is likely to be adopted and that resolution will most probably come when technological advances in immunology simply make the concept of brain death obsolete.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Brain Death / diagnosis*
  • Brain Death / physiopathology
  • Humans
  • Public Opinion
  • Respiration, Artificial
  • Tissue and Organ Procurement / ethics*
  • Tissue and Organ Procurement / methods