Understanding Brain Death

The Brain Death Controversy in Jewish Law

Historically, death was not particularly difficult to define from either a legal or halachic standpoint. Generally, all vital systems of the body-respiratory, neurological, and circulatory-would fail at the same time and none of these functions could be prolonged without the maintenance of the others. Today, with major technological advances in life support, particularly the development of respirators and heart-lung machines, it is entirely possible to keep some bodily systems "functioning" long after others have ceased. Since we no longer face the inevitable simultaneity of systemic failures, it has become necessary to define with greater precision and specificity which physiological systems are indicators of life and which (if any) are not, especially in light of the scarcity of medical resources and the pressing need for organs for transplantation purposes. Over the past 20 or so years, the concept of "neurological death" commonly called "brain death," "whole brain death" or "brain-stem death" (and, sometimes, inaccurately-termed "cerebral death") has gained increasing acceptance within the medical profession and among the vast majority of state legislatures and courts in the United States.

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