Brain death, states of impaired consciousness, and physician-assisted death for end-of-life organ donation and transplantation
A recent commentary defends 1) the concept of 'brain arrest' to explain what brain death is, and 2) the concept that death occurs at 2-5 minutes after absent circulation. I suggest that both these claims are flawed. Brain arrest is said to threaten life, and lead to death by causing a secondary respiratory then cardiac arrest. It is further claimed that ventilation only interrupts this way that brain arrest leads to death. These statements imply that brain arrest is not death itself. Brain death is a devastating state that leads to death when intensive care, which replaces some of the brain's vital functions such as breathing, is withdrawn and circulation stops resulting in irreversible loss of integration of the organism. Circulatory death is said to occur at 2-5 minutes after absent circulation because, in the context of DCD, the intent is to not attempt reversal of the absent circulation. No defense of this weak construal of irreversible loss of circulation is given. This means that patients in identical physiologic states are dead (in the DCD context) or alive (in the resuscitation context); the current state of death (at 2-5 minutes) is contingent on a future event (whether there will be resuscitation) suggesting backward causation; and the commonly used meaning of irreversible as 'not capable of being reversed' is abandoned. The literature supporting the claim that autoresuscitation does not occur in the context of no cardiopulmonary resuscitation is shown to be very limited. Several cases of autoresuscitation are summarized, suggesting that the claim that these cases are not applicable to the current debate may be premature. I suggest that brain dead and DCD donors are not dead; whether organs can be harvested before death from these patients whose prognosis is death should be debated urgently.