There never used to be debate over when someone was dead. If there was no heartbeat, no breathing, and no response to stimulation or resuscitation for a sufficient period of time, it was clear that the death of the person had occurred. However, in 1968, that all changed.
In 1967, widespread attention was drawn to organ donation with Dr. Christian Barnard’s heart transplant in South Africa. This gave rise to an intense campaign—which continues today—to encourage organ harvesting/donation. The traditional criterion for declaring death (centered on absence of circulation and respiration), however, stands in the way of obtaining unpaired vital organs – such as the heart – in good condition for transplantation.
Why? Because it is necessary for the heart to be beating and blood, carrying oxygen, to be pumping in and out of such organs at the time of removal. Therefore, the desire for vital organs for transplantation prompted some to look for new and different criteria to declare death which would allow functioning organs to be removed from the patient.
In 1968, the notion of “brain death” was formulated and published by an ad hoc committee of the Harvard Medical School. Thus, “brain death” as a criterion for declaring death was proposed and accepted by many.
The practice of declaring death based on “brain death” criterion is flawed. Criteria for declaring death are not something to take lightly. As long as “brain death” continues to be accepted and used as a sole diagnosis for death, some patients will be sent to the grave prematurely.