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The New Definition of Death

Updated on May 12, 2013

Life and Death

Life and death are two distinct states and a person is thought to be either alive or dead, not both at any given point of time. Is there any sign that can identify the final loss of life? The answer appears to be not so easy now ! The process of death occurs at different levels from the organism to the organ, the cellular and subcellular levels. It does not occur at a single moment in time. The determination of death depends on the premise of reversibility. If a person recovers after after an event like a 'Heart attack' where brief cessation of heartbeat and breathing took place, then by convention that person never was dead. The doctor has not resurrected the person, he has only 'resuscitated him'. The person has had a near-death experience and not an after-death experience.

The question of when death is 'final' is now a complex one. Today technology can restore and sustain the function of many organs. The Harvard Medical School Committee developed a definition of death in 1968. According to this definition a person is 'brain dead' when he or she suffers irreversible cessation of the functioning of the ' whole brain' as demonstrated by a flat electroencephalogram. Doctors traditionally have determined death by examining persons for lack of spontaneous movements including breathing, absence of pupillary light reflexes and heartbeat. However the essential feature of human life is consciousness. This in turn is dependent on brain function and if the body cannot maintain itself and can only function through mechanical means, then the essential significant feature of human life is gone.

Any law for determining the issue of death must have a legal standard and medical criteria for doing so. It should be updated periodically in line with the expanding medical knowledge. The law governing declaration of death should take into account the current standards of medical practice. The medical criteria should include a time period for evaluation and opinion of more than one physician, giving less scope for debate in ' disconnecting' the person from organ supporting equipment.

The current medical criteria for declaration of death is the cessation of functioning of the ' whole brain'. The next time you hear of somebody`s death, make sure he is ' Brain dead' !


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