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Life in the Balance

posted: 2.6.14 by Donna Winchell

Two tragic cases have in the last few weeks drawn attention to the definition of life, or, more accurately, to the definition of death.

For thirteen-year-old Jahi McMath, it began when tonsil, nose, and throat surgery went terribly wrong. Doctors declared Jahi brain dead, but her family has not accepted her doctors’ judgment. They moved her from the hospital to an undisclosed location where machines can keep her heart beating. Their contention is that their religion dictates that Jahi is alive as long as she has a heartbeat. Even members of her family have had to admit that her body may have deteriorated to the point that she could never recover. The family does not seem to favor taking the case to court, but their lawyer, Christopher Dolan, feels that her case could redefine what death means, according to California law. According to the San Jose (California) Mercury News, Jahi’s would be “the nation’s first challenge to a law linking end of life to brain death. Families — not hospitals, judges or governments — should decide when treatment stops on a loved one, Dolan argues. And if a family believes life stops when the heart stops, based on religious beliefs, a government should not have the power to interfere with their constitutional right to practice those beliefs.”

The warrant underlying the family’s argument is clear: Life stops when the heart stops. The qualifier would be that that is the case even if the heart is kept beating by a machine.

The doctors draw their conclusions based on a different warrant: California’s Health and Safety Code 7180 states that an individual who has sustained “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem, is dead.”

The second case was complicated by the fact that the patient who had been declared brain dead was pregnant. Before she was found unconscious as the result of a blood clot, Marlise Munoz of Fort Worth had made it clear to her husband that she did not want to be kept on life support should such a situation arise. The hospital, however, felt it was obeying Texas law by maintaining Munoz on life support anyway in order to protect the rights of the fetus. It was up to a judge to decide that Munoz could be taken off life support. This second tragic case provides a good opportunity for students to discuss what warrant underlay each side of the argument.


[Photo: Lubbock Heart Hospital by brykmantra]

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One Response to “Life in the Balance”

  1. Jill Says:

    This post appeared at the perfect time. My students are beginning argument-based research essays (the first of their lives) this week, and this example will help them to understand the concept of warrants. Thanks!