Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Redefining death

Ideally, the law should be changed to describe more accurately and honestly the way that death is determined in clinical practice. Most doctors have hesitated to say so too loudly, lest they be caricatured in public as greedy harvesters eager to strip living patients of their organs. But their public silence was broken on 24 September at an international meeting that included physicians, transplant surgeons and bioethicists at the Italian Festival of Health in Viareggio. The meeting concluded that lawmakers in the United States and elsewhere should reconsider rigid definitions of death, and called for a wider public debate.

The time has come for a serious discussion on redrafting laws that push doctors towards a form of deceit. But care must be taken to ensure that it doesn't backfire. Learning that the law has not been strictly adhered to could easily discourage organ donation at a time when demand for organs already vastly exceeds supply. Physicians and others involved in the issue would be wise to investigate just how incendiary the theme might be, perhaps in contained focus groups, and design their strategy accordingly.

Few things are as sensitive as death. But concerns about the legal details of declaring death in someone who will never again be the person he or she was should be weighed against the value of giving a full and healthy life to someone who will die without a transplant [emphasis mine].


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