How is Death Defined?

A recent Huffington Post article written by PhD Sharon Kaufman investigates the brain death of thirteen year old Jahi McMath, which resurfaced a past case regarding the definition of death.  The resurfaced 1975 case regarded a young patient on life support whose parents chose to release her from the machine after several months while the doctors were hesitant to in order to avoid future lawsuits.  The case “ushered in a deep-seated confusion about what death is, when it occurs and who says so“. As a person with a terminal brain injury cannot make the decision for life on their own, it becomes a controversial choice that is made between medical personnel and family of the patient.

Paul Gill looks at the anthropological view of brain stem death, and how it may not be defined in all cultures as death because the patient’s organs are still intact. Also, Gill focuses on how different cultures view death as different occurrences, which may not always be biological and could also be spiritual. He sees death as something surrounded by emotions and beliefs and has extreme cultural and social significance.  Although brain death is a proven scientific occurrence, Gill focuses on the fact that several cultures such as Denmark and Japan do not accept the concept. Denmark still has legislation against brain stem death as a conclusion of life and Japan only passed legislation accepting it in 1999.

This touches into the concentration of medical anthropology and how different cultures define life.  This is relevant to our western culture because hospitals and families must make the decisions to take brain dead individuals off of life support every day and the decision uproots many cultural and social debates.

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