Determination of Death and the Dead Donor Rule: A Survey of the Current Law on Brain Death

J Med Philos. 2016 Jun;41(3):237-56. doi: 10.1093/jmp/jhw002. Epub 2016 Apr 20.


Despite seeming uniformity in the law, end-of-life controversies have highlighted variations among state brain death laws and their interpretation by courts. This article provides a survey of the current legal landscape regarding brain death in the United States, for the purpose of assisting professionals who seek to formulate or assess proposals for changes in current law and hospital policy. As we note, the public is increasingly wary of the role of organ transplantation in determinations of death, and of the variability of brain death diagnosing criteria. We urge that any attempt to alter current state statutes or to adopt a national standard must balance the need for medical accuracy with sound ethical principles which reject the utilitarian use of human beings and are consistent with the dignity of the human person. Only in this way can public trust be rebuilt.

Keywords: Uniform Determination of Death Act; brain death; brain death laws; dead donor rule; organ transplantation.

MeSH terms

  • Brain Death / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Humans
  • Legislation, Medical
  • Living Donors / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Persistent Vegetative State*
  • Public Policy
  • Tissue and Organ Harvesting / ethics*
  • Tissue and Organ Procurement / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United States