Religious Values and Brain Death


The Definition of Death and Brain Death According to Popular Religion

All major organized religions in the world allow for organ donation as long as it does not impede the patient’s life or hasten death. From the religious perspective, all source of life comes from a man’s soul. Currently, science cannot definitively pinpoint the “single event” known as death, where body and soul separate.

The Catholic Church recognizes the difference between what is ordinary and extraordinary medical treatment. It is the difference between medical care that is reasonable and proportionate as compared to medical care that is not performed with regard to a patient’s health condition.

Most religions require the patient to be truly brain, brain stem, and cortex brain dead resulting in cardio and respiratory cessation. The President’s Council on Bioethics (PBCE) concluded that the dead donor rule requires “an individual be really dead in order to be a heart-beating donor of vital organs.” The PBCE also stated that it was “not ethically justifiable” to abandon the dead donor rule because “there is no solid scientific or philosophical rational for abandoning the dead donor rule as a guide for medical practice.”

An article by The American Thinker points out that there are states that allow for a conscience exception when the licensed physician has a reason to believe, based on medical records or the family’s information, that a brain death declaration would violate the patient’s religious beliefs. These beliefs are most often Orthodox Judaism, Japanese Shintoism and Eastern Orthodox Christianity.

Therefore, death should be declared solely upon the basis of the cardio respiratory criteria under the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA).  If the patient or family believes that death should be declared only when the heart stops beating, medical professionals, hospitals, judges and governments should not interfere with their sacred right to practice one’s religious beliefs with absolute autonomy.  Why? Because federal law overrides state law when a citizen’s federal constitutional rights and issues are involved.

David Orentlicher, a former Indiana State Representative, and Samuel R. Rosen, professor at Indiana University Robert H. McKinney School of Law, writes in the article “Honor Beliefs in End-of-Life Decisions:”

“In America, all citizens have the right to self-determination, states permit people to reject ‘brain death’ on the basis of their religious beliefs and insist that death be declared only upon the loss of all cardiac function…”


“When people hold different and legitimate views about life and death, we should accommodate their views as much as possible.  As the U. S. Supreme Court has observed, ‘at the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.’  The distinction between life and death is a profoundly important distinction, but it is not always clear where the line between the two should be drawn.  When we cannot be sure about matters of great importance to people, we should not impose a single approach on all … In some sense, we allow women to see their fetuses as people as early as conception or as late as viability. For women who do not view their offspring as people, the law permits abortion until viability.  And for women who view their offspring as people at the moment of conception, the law provides protection from harm to their fetuses by other people … To be sure, there are costs to society when people are provided medical care after they are determined to be brain dead because of the loss of brain function.  Intensive care is very expensive.  But there also are costs when we do not tolerate sincerely held, minority viewpoints in society.  These costs may not be reducible to dollars and cents, but they are nevertheless very important … Where the costs to society are a trivial amount of what we spend on healthcare overall.”

Whole Brain Death & The Uniform Determination of Death Act

The dead donor rule is not a regulation nor a law, but a formalization of a widely held ethical belief and standard that “it is wrong to kill one person to save the life of another, leading to the conclusion that people should be dead before vital organs are removed, an act that would certainly kill them.”  (Dr. Robert Sade, Journal of the South Carolina Medical Association)

The, removal of life support before or near death is not justified based on the following arguments:

  • Medical Futility – Reasoning that you cannot kill someone who can’t breathe on their own
  • Quality of Life – The assumption that the patient’s life will be diminished to one that is not worth living.
  • Monetary Costs – Considering the monetary cost involved for the hospital does depend  on the type of insurance. The Affordable Health Care Act has no monetary limits for care for patients with pre-existing conditions. The old insurance guidelines required a two million dollar limit. In America almost all organ transplant recipients are insured.  Those organ transplant recipients without insurance rarely received an organ transplant due to financial issues.

The UDDA therefore allows death to be determined three different ways: brain death, cardiac death and upholds the integrity of the the dead donor rule. The Uniform Law Commission says that brain death standards are needed “not because of death itself, but because of the effect in the law of the biological fact of death.”  Their position is that “the brain, as the center of the human body, is its most important organ.  Its irreversible functioning should be accepted as death.” Why? Because its assumed  “biological function can now be maintained [by] life support beyond the time the brain can be maintained.”  This may no longer be correct. New Scientific Research has now called for a new definition of brain death.

The Uniform Law Commission says that “the purpose of the UDDA is a minimum one.  It recognizes cardiorespiratory and brain death in accordance with the criteria the medical profession universally accepts.  The act does not authorize euthanasia or ‘death with dignity,’ and does not enact sort of living will.”

Given these two perspectives, it then becomes important that authentic moral principles are upheld to the benefit of the patient. Yet, the UDDA decides when the determination of death is made upon the agreement of two medical doctors for the patient without regard  for the patient’s wishes for pro-life or practice of their particular religion, whether it be Christian, Jewish, Muslim, or another religion, even though these religions have historically practiced natural death, as determined in religious texts as when the heart stops beating on its own.

Any form of conscience awareness, no matter how slight, would make removal of life support cruel and immoral if any measure of physiological consciousness of the soul exists under the patient’s religion.

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