According to some ethicists, The current medical definition of death is wrong ... and this mistake is costing lives.
The controversy swirls around organ donation, in which doctors remove organs from brain dead patients:
Most organs donated from the deceased come from people who have been diagnosed as brain dead. Organs remain viable for only about an hour or two after a person's last heartbeat. Brain dead patients are ideal candidates for organ donation, then, because they are kept on ventilators, which means their heart and lungs continue to work, ensuring that a steady flow of oxygen-rich blood keeps their organs healthy. Surgeons remove the donor's organs, then shut off the ventilator. The patient's heart eventually stops.
Yet a small but vocal minority in the medical community has always insisted that some brain dead patients may not be dead. For instance, one study documented some kind of brain activity in up to 20 percent of people declared brain dead, suggesting to some critics that doctors sometimes misdiagnose the condition. Although some neurologists contend the claim, University of Wisconsin medical ethicist Dr. Norman Fost points to research showing that many "brain dead" patients have a functioning hypothalamus, a structure at the base of the brain that governs certain bodily functions, such as blood pressure and appetite.
"We have been taking organs out of those patients by the thousands," says Fost, "and they are not brain dead."
Others point to the unsettling fact that the brain dead look alive -- their hearts beat, lungs function (albeit with the aid of a respirator), and skin retains a pink hue. Brain dead women have even given birth.
"There is nobody in the world of philosophy and bioethics who thinks brain death is a coherent concept," says Truog.