The definition of death is constantly changing, and doctors and lawyers struggle to determine which states of life are worth protecting.
In early July, the Daily Beast detailed how difficult it is to come up with the legal definition of death, which before 1959 was simply when the heart and lungs stopped working.
But after French doctors discovered “coma dépassé,” which means “beyond coma,” legal clarifications were written that allowed doctors and hospitals to donate organs from these types of patients to save the lives of others.
The definition of death is constantly updated
But what if brain death is reversible or not 100% complete? Thaddeus Pope of Mitchell Hamline Law School in the US says these conversations are starting to revolve around which lives are worth more, a topic with many ethical implications.
“We are literally legislating what states of life are worth protecting, which is very, very similar to the abortion debate,” Pope told the Daily Beast, according to Futurism.
Other doctors point to cases like that of a 4-year-old boy who went through a type of delayed puberty despite being on life support for 20 years. Puberty is a hormonal process controlled by the brain, lending credence to the idea that a person is still somewhat alive or mostly dead, depending on perspective.
Why does there need to be such a definition?
However, not all cases are the same, and legal definitions should expand as we learn more about what makes a life a life. For example, surely someone who worked on Google’s “conscious” Artificial Intelligence would feel great pain if the program they believe has personal consciousness was shut down or destroyed. But it is not clear what kind of internal experiences constitute consciousness.
The definition of death needs to exist because hospitals and doctors need to work, either through life-saving care or vital organ transplants for patients who need them.
Although legal terminology may change over time as medical advances mean more lives can be saved despite severe brain damage or even brain death, current standards are largely just practical, an example of the healthcare industry making everything in his power.