More than 8,000 individuals donated their organs upon their death in the U.S. last year. Here surgeons remove the heart, kidneys, pancreas, liver, lungs, eyes and some bones from a woman who has been declared brain-dead. Image: Max Aguilera-Hellweg
- Transplant surgeons must wait for a specified period after death to extract a potential donor’s organs.
- In these oxygen-starved moments, the organs decay, making a precise determination of the moment of death paramount. Still, the process of death may render organs unusable.
- Ethicists have begun to question whether it is necessary for a patient to be fully dead before beginning transplant surgery.
More In This Article
Death used to be a simple affair: either a person’s heart was beating, or it was not. That clarity faded years ago when heroic medical technology started to keep hearts beating indefinitely. Although we have had decades to ponder the distinctions between various states of grave physiological failure, if anything our confusion has grown. When is it ethical to turn off a ventilator or remove a feeding tube? When does “life support” lose its meaning? And most critically, at what point is it acceptable to cut into a body and remove the heart that could save another life?
These issues are not academic. They raise questions about health care costs—is it worth using expensive machinery on a body that is for all intents and purposes dead?—as well as about dignity in end-of-life care. This year’s “death panel” subplot of the health care debate fed off the real fears people have about being taken advantage of when at their weakest.
This article was originally published with the title When Does Life Belong to the Living?.