Defining death down

Defining death down

Ironically, or maybe not, as one scientific establishment raises alarms about what it perceives to be dire threats to the planet, another is posing demonstrable threats to individual human lives.

Guest column keeping the faith The trove of e-mails written by climate scientists at East Anglia University in England that was made public last month seems to implicate some of those professionals as having sought to alter data and suppress evidence about global warming. The e-mails certainly show that scientists can be as spiteful, conniving, and deceptive as anyone else. Global warming skeptics have seized upon the e-mails’ revelations to promote their skepticism; whether it is warranted or not remains an open question.

But another idea, this one promoted by much of the medical establishment, presents a clear and present danger.

“Decisions are made every day in this country to withdraw and remove people from life support,” says a doctor quoted by Dr. Sanjay Gupta in his book “Cheating Death,” “without really giving them a chance.” And, as was recently reported in The New York Times, “terminal sedation” – administering drugs to alleviate pain but thereby hastening death – has been embraced by many medical professionals. Life, quite literally, isn’t what it used to be.

Then there are the patients who are in what is called a “vegetative state” – showing no responses to stimuli beyond muscle reflexes. In several highly publicized cases, some have awakened, even after many years, from their seeming obliviousness. Most, though, do not and many are removed from life support and deprived of water and nutrition. But calculating percentages begs the larger question – whether such people are, whatever their physical limitations, in their “vegetative” states, in fact alive.

“Many doctors harbor a therapeutic nihilism about such patients,” writes Dr. Ford Vox, a resident physician at Washington University in St. Louis, in the Washington Post, “but this research should give us good reason to keep our minds open.”

The research to which he refers includes that of neuroscientist Dr. Adrian Owen of Cambridge, who analyzed the real-time brain activity of a young woman in a vegetative state five months after a car accident. Utilizing digital processing of EEG readings that reveal unique, reproducible signals, he reported in 2006 in Science that the patient, whose only visible response to the external world was occasionally fixating on an object, was able to follow complex commands with her mind, imagining playing tennis and walking through the rooms of her home. Owen found similarly remarkable results in at least three other patients.

There is, moreover, also a “minimally conscious state” (MCS), estimated to be 10 times as prevalent as the more recognized vegetative one. And, Dr. Vox maintains, “about one-third of the time, ‘vegetative’ patients are minimally conscious or even better.”

In November 2008, using EEG readings, Dr. Steven Laureys, a neurologist at the University of Liege in Belgium, demonstrated that some low-level MCS patients were able to follow basic instructions – counting familiar and unfamiliar names played randomly into headphones.

And, at the Moss Rehabilitation Research Institute, Dr. John Whyte is studying the seemingly paradoxical fact that the sedative Ambien apparently causes some vegetative patients to perk up to MCS or higher states.

All that should be sufficient to give pause to would-be plug-pullers. But a variety of factors – most notably, perhaps, the shortage of organs for transplantation – is pushing some physicians to call a life a life, even if it hasn’t yet been fully lived.

Writing recently in The New York Times Magazine, Dr. Darshak Sanghavi, chief of pediatric cardiology at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, asserts that medical professionals “have handled [the] paradoxical situation” that an organ donor must be dead but the needed organ alive “by fashioning a category of people with beating hearts” to be regarded “as if they had rigor mortis.”

Such “dead” people with pulses – sometimes brain-damaged but not necessarily meeting the criteria of “brain death” – who are assisted in their breathing by a machine are candidates for “donation after cardiac death” (DCD). Where that procedure is chosen, the patient’s breathing tube is removed in an operating room. If breathing ceases naturally and the heart stops within an hour, five minutes are counted off. The interval is not based on any research; it was the best-guess decision of a panel of experts in 1997. If the heart does not resume beating by the five-minute buzzer, the patient is declared legally dead and his organs harvested – despite demonstrable brain activity.

Dr. Sanghavi reports further that, in 2004, Dr. Mark Boucek, a pediatric cardiologist at Denver Children’s Hospital, decided to write a “far more aggressive DCD protocol,” revising the five-minute rule down to three minutes. Then, when that didn’t yield the desired results, he re-revised it to just over a minute.

“Doctors have created a new class of potential organ donors who are not dead but dying,” writes Dr. Sanghavi. “By arbitrarily drawing a line between death and life – five minutes after the heart stops – they [doctors] have raised difficult ethical questions. Are they merely acknowledging death or hastening it in their zeal to save others’ lives?” He leaves the question hanging in the air.

In the eyes of Judaism, every moment of human life, even compromised human life, is beyond value, and Jewish law forbids hastening a person’s death to any degree. There is some controversy about whether halacha, or Jewish religious law, considers brain death to constitute death. But no halachic authority permits the withdrawal of life support from a patient whose brain is merely damaged.

The world’s human population is indeed at a turning point. Because whether or not carbon emission-born catastrophe in fact looms, modern medicine’s defining of death downward is clearly upon us.

Am Echad Resources

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