Summer 2011

Is Brain Death the Death of a Human Person?

Robert Spaemann

“The identification of ‘brain death’ and the death of the human being can be maintained only if the personality of man is disconnected from being a human in the biological sense. . . . To do this by appealing to the doctrine of St. Thomas is absurd.”



Death and life are not primarily objects of science. Our primary access to the phenomenon of life is self-awareness and the perception of other humans and other living beings. Life is the being of the living. Vivere viventibus est esse, says Aristotle. For a living being, not to live means ceasing to exist. Being, however, is never an object of natural science. It is in fact the primum notum of reason and as such secondarily an object of metaphysical reflection. Because life is the being of the living, then life cannot be defined. According to the classical adage ens et unum convertuntur, it holds true for every living organism that it is alive precisely as long as it possesses internal unity.

Unlike the unity of atom and molecule, the unity of the living organism is constituted by an anti-entropic process of integration. Death is the end of this integration. With death, the reign of entropy begins—hence, the reign of “destructuring,” of decay. Decomposition can be stopped by means of chemical mummification, but this way of preserving a corpse merely holds its parts together in a purely external, spatial sense. Supporting the process of integration with the help of technical appliances, however, is very different. The organism preserved in this way would in fact die on its own if left unsupported, but since it is kept from dying, it is kept alive, and cannot be declared dead at the same time. In this sense Pope Pius XII declared that human life continues even when its vital functions manifest themselves with the help of artificial processes.

*This essay was delivered as part of the 2010 McGivney Lecture, “Nature and Natural Law in the Present Cultural Situation: Issues Concerning the Dignity of Human Life,” at the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family at The Catholic University of America, 12–16 April 2010, Washington, D.C. Publication forthcoming (Eerdman’s Publishing Co.).