Questions Arising Out of Brain Death Cases Increase

Brain death for decades has been a serviceable concept for health-care providers. A patient who shows no sign of brain activity generally has been accepted to be dead and any artificial means of keeping him or her alive can be ended.

New questions have been swirling around, however, as anecdotal evidence of people recovering after a diagnosis of brain death grows. Cases like those of Jahi McMath, a California girl whose family insists she is not brain dead despite having been in a nonresponsive state since 2013, add to the confusion.

This presents a dilemma for health-care providers, as the cost of caring for a person whose brain is no longer functioning was estimated to be over $10,000 per day in the case of a Virginia toddler whose parents fought a hospital’s plan to perform a test to see if she could breathe on her own.

Still, providers don’t want to make a mistake. And groups that advocate for life at all stages have added their voices to the debate.

I recently talked with two of the nation’s leading attorney-experts on the subject, Tom Mayo, a medical ethicist and professor at Southern Methodist University Law School in Dallas, and Thaddeus Mason Pope, a bioethicist and director of the Health Law Institute at Mitchell Hamline School of Law in St. Paul, Minn. They called McMath’s situation “unique” and “messy,” and said it has the potential to disrupt the status quo.

To see what else they had to say about the issue, read my full story here.

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