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Redefining Death: An Argument for Person-Based Criteria

Redefining Death: An Argument for Person-Based Criteria

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by Joseph Venturini
by Joseph Venturini

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Published by: Journal of Undergraduate Research on Apr 17, 2010
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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graduated rom Notre Dame in 2009 with adual degree in the Program o Liberal Studies and Pre-proessionalStudies. He is currently a medical student at the Loyola University o Chicago’s Stritch School o Medicine. He developed an interestin philosophy during his years in the Great Books program at NotreDame. Tis paper is his senior essay. Joe sees medical ethics as theoverlap between his liberal studies background and his medical edu-cation. He would like to thank Bernd Goehring, his advisor, or hisindispensible guidance.
Redefining Death:An Argument for a Person-Based Criteria
Clearly, then, it is the easiest o all things to demolish a defnition,while to establish one is the hardest.– Aristotle,
In the middle o the twentieth century, the denition o deathchanged or the rst time in millennia. An individual was now con-sidered dead when her brain was dead—even i her heart was stillbeating. Tis new denition changed the way physicians, clergy, andlay-people thought about the end o lie. Tis paper chronicles theacceptance o total-brain death as a legal denition in the UnitedStates and questions whether urther modication o the denitiono death is necessary. Specically, this paper attempts to outline therelationship between lie and personhood in an attempt to inormthe way we dene death where our current denition is lacking.I propose higher-brain death as an alternative denition o deathin the United States and assess the ethical implications o such adenition.
Part 1: A Brief History of Death in the Western World
1.1 Death in the Enlightenment 
In the eighteenth century, diagnosis o death was relatively simple. When a person became unconscious, a physician (usually) would eel or a pulse, listen or breathing, and determine i the in-dividual’s pupils were xed. Despite these basic measures, however,disagreement about a denition o death persisted. Some writings
journal of undergraduate research
rom the time describe dead persons awakening during unerals andexhumed bodies ound to have clawed at their co n lids.
In an e-ort to prevent premature burials, many Enlightenment physiciansproposed putreaction (decomposition) as the only reliable sign o death. Tis method worked, but it created signicant public healthissues or the surrounding community. As the Enlightenment came to a close, medical expertise becamemore common and eective. Te invention o the stethoscope in1816 made it easier or physicians to identiy normal and abnormalheart-sounds, which they quickly began to associate with certainmedical problems.
Tis new ability—as well as the advancement o pathology and other research initiatives—allowed the medical eldto gain signicant insight into the nature o disease and death.
1.2 Te riangle o Lie: the Brain, Heart, and Lungs 
In 1800, Marie François Xavier Bichat, a renowned French phys-iologist, published his
Recherches physiologiques sur la vie et la mort (Physiological research on lie and death)
. Medical historian ElizabethHaigh considers the work a synthesis o nearly all the importantmedical concepts that had evolved in the eighteenth century; she be-lieves the book is an appropriate indicator o contemporary medicalthought.
Bichat, the ounder o Doctor Larivière’s surgical school,opened his study with the assertion: “Lie consists in the sum o theunctions which resist death.”
Bichat then identied two separatelives that made up an individual:
. For Bichat,organic lie was the essential aspect o lie held in common by allliving things.
In humans, or example, organic unctions were thehomeostatic and autonomic unctions, such as respiration, circula-tion, and metabolism. By contrast, animal lie was the irregular, ra-tional, and habitual lie.
Bichat believed that the organic lie beganat conception; and that animal lie began at birth and was the rst toleave the body at death. Tese organic and animal lives were distinctthroughout the lie o the body. “While the organic lie may exist

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