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.



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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