Summer 2011

Is Brain Death the Death of a Human Person?

Robert Spaemann



We cannot define life and death, because we cannot define being and non-being. We can, however, discern life and death by means of their physical signs. Holy Scripture, for example, regards breath as the basic phenomenon of life, and for this reason breath is often simply identified with life itself. The cessation of breathing and heartbeat, the “dimming of the eyes,” rigor mortis, etc., are the criteria by which, since time immemorial, humans have seen and felt that a fellow human being is dead. In European civilization it has been customary and prescribed by law for a long time to consult the physician at such times, who has to confirm the judgment of family members. This confirmation is not based on a different, scientific definition of death, but on more precise methods to identify the very phenomena already noted by family members. A physician may still be able to discern slight breathing, which a layperson might not perceive. Moreover, the physician could nowadays point out that the person whose heart has stopped beating may very well still exist. Due to such sources of error in the perception of death, it is a reasonable traditional rule to let some time elapse between noting these phenomena and the funeral or cremation of the deceased. Similarly, consulting a physician serves the purpose of making sure that a human being is not prematurely declared dead, i.e., non-existent.

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