The legal definition of death is ever-evolving.
Yesterday's Daily Beast report detailed just how hard it is to legally define death, which before 1959 was defined simply as the heart and lungs ceasing to function. But after French physicians discovered "coma dépassé," which means "beyond a coma," legal clarification was written allowing doctors and hospitals to complete organ donations from these types of patients in order to save other patients' lives.
But what if brain death is reversible, or not 100 percent complete? Thaddeus Pope of the Mitchell Hamline School of Law says these conversations start to revolve around which lives are most valuable and that gets into stick territory.
"We're literally legislating what states of life are worth protecting, which is very, very similar to the abortion debate," Pope told the Beast.
Other doctors point out cases like that of a 4-year-old boy who went through a stunted kind of puberty even though he was on life support for 20 years. Puberty is a hormonal process controlled by the brain, giving credence to the idea that the person is still somewhat alive — or mostly dead, depending on how you look at it.
Not all cases are created equal, though, and our legal definitions may need to expand further as we learn more about what makes a life, a life. For example, surely the creator who worked on Google's new "sentient" AI would feel significant amounts of grief if the program he believes is having a valuable personal experience were to be shut down or destroyed. But it's not clear what sorts of internal experiences make a consciousness.
Many times death is defined because hospitals and doctors need to work, whether through life-saving care or providing vital organ transplants to patients in need.
Although the legal terminology may change over time as medical advances mean more lives can be saved despite heavy brain damage or even brain death, the current standards are mostly just practical — an example of the healthcare industry doing its best.
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