Brain Dead in D.C.

Praying for Terry Schiavo in 2005.
Praying for Terry Schiavo in 2005. (photo: AFP)

Catholics aren’t the only ones discussing the question of when life ends.

A case now before a court in Washington, D.C., involves a 12-year-old boy whose brain has stopped functioning completely, according to doctors, but whose body is being kept alive by drugs and a respirator. The boy’s Orthodox Jewish parents reject their son’s medical diagnosis of death, asserting that the teachings of their faith about the end of life should take precedence over the determination of doctors.

There are some parallels between the Washington case and the decision that ended the life of Terry Schiavo in 2005, but Schiavo displayed much more brain activity before she died following the withholding of nutrition and hydration by court order. 

The D.C. case has prompted the posting of this article on the Slate website discussing the various criteria applied by Jews, Christians, Muslims and Buddhists to settle the question of when death can be said definitively to have occurred. According to the article, all four faiths continue to wrestle with the issue.

The Slate article provides no guidance as to the views of atheists on brain death. But this inane bus-ad initiative — timed to coincide offensively with Christmas celebrations in the nation’s capital — could cause some folks to speculate whether the brains of the atheists who launched it have stopped functioning already.

— Tom McFeely