We’re being reminded with some frequency that we can keep people alive with machines even when they’re dead. Recently life support was turned off on a brain-dead 33 year old who was 18 weeks pregnant. Marlise Munoz was a paramedic who had made clear that she would not have wanted to be kept alive by a machine. But Texas state law prohibited withdrawing or withholding life-sustaining treatment from a pregnant patient, regardless of her wishes, or those of her husband and parents. Ultimately the family went to court and prevailed.
The accepted medical standard defining death is when you are brain dead; but what happens if someone is deemed brain-dead, and the family insists that their loved one be kept alive?
That’s exactly what happened to Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl who suffered complications from a tonsillectomy at Oakland Children’s Hospital in December 2013, and was subsequently declared brain-dead. Her mother said her religious beliefs say that as long as her child’s heart is beating then she’s alive.
This is the darkest tragedy any parent should ever have to endure, but keeping somebody’s heart pumping on the machine is not going to bring them back. We’re not talking about someone in a coma; no one deemed fully brain-dead has ever recovered.
We live in an age in which machines can keep any body operating indefinitely. Does that mean everybody gets to define death for themselves? There will always be people/families who say “please make more efforts for my loved ones”.
Never mind the economics of chronic life-support; what is the morality of it? Nature does not design things forever; every generation makes room for the next (some a little longer others shorter) but we all move on. It’s getting harder and harder for us to let go, and now we can manipulate our genetics so that we will live longer and longer. I say, let’s stop pursuing immortality and let death have its day.