• brain death;
  • death;
  • organ donation;
  • organism;
  • bioethics;
  • President's Council


The President's Council on Bioethics has recently released a report supportive of the continued use of brain death as a criterion for human death. The Council's conclusions were based on a conception of life that stressed external work as the fundamental marker of organismic life. With respect to human life, it is spontaneous respiration in particular that indicates an ability to interact with the external environment, and so indicates the presence of life. Conversely, irreversible apnoea marks an inability to carry out the necessary work of life, an inability which the Council considers an indicator of death. This conception has been conceived to circumvent criticisms of the previous model of loss of somatic integration, a model the Council admits that, in the presence of evidence of continuing functional integration in brain dead patients, was looking less than convincing. Nevertheless, by focusing on external work and ignoring the more essential work of integrative unity, the Council's conception of the nature of life is untenable, and of no assistance in supporting a relation of equivalence between the concepts of brain death and death. Consequently, the Council's conclusions do little to advance the definition of death debate, a potentially intractable debate that may necessitate the investigation of alternate ethical justifications for organ harvesting.