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In his article, “Changing Ethics in Life and Death Decision Making,” Peter Singer makes many great points about the sanctity of human life and the religious, scientific, and moral implications of death. Singer brings up different sides of this controversial issue.
According to Singer, in 1968, the legal definition of death was “based on the cessation of heartbeat and of the circulation of the blood.” However, in 1968, Professor Henry Beecher of Harvard University challenged this, claiming that there were recent scientific discoveries around the nature of death and how it should legally be defined. In many countries, brain death has also been accepted as a legal definition of death. While this delicate issue is controversial, it is clear that there are both pros and cons to this issue.
To establish an understanding of the true definition of death, one must understand who has the right to decide this definition. Because the matter of death is a matter that concerns both science and religion, it is obvious that there may be controversy over who should make this moral decision. Pope Pius XII spoke on this issue as early as 1957 when he addressed the International Congress of Anesthesiologists. At the time, respirators were just beginning to be used and the issue of whether or not living on a machine is really living came into question. Though the discovery of respirators was a scientific one, the question of whether it is right or wrong to take someone off the machine who is solely dependent on it is an ethical judgement, not a scientific one. However, “Pope Pius XII had said that it is for doctors, not the Church, to give a clear and precise definition of “death” and “the moment of death” of a patient who passes away in a state of unconsciousness.” I agree with Pope Pius XII’s point that it is for doctors, who are educated on the science of death to decide when a person is legally dead, but that there are some moral decisions that should not be based solely on science.
No matter whose decision it is, it is undeniable that there are benefits to broadening the definition of the word death. There are many cases where patients end up on life support because their body can no longer function on its own. Some of these patients are eventually able to recover and support themselves, while many others will never recover. Singer points out the difference between patients in an irreversible coma and patients declared brain dead. Patients who are brain dead do not have the central nervous system activity that some comatose patients do have. Brain dead patients do not have the option of a good quality of life as they are reliant on machines to keep them living. Considering brain dead patients to be dead would put these people and their families out of their misery. It would also give people in need of an organ more opportunities to get one from these brain dead, but otherwise healthy, patients. This could save many lives.
Along with the positives of broadening the definition, there are many negatives. Singer points out that introducing a new concept of death may imply that warm, breathing human beings are dead. This is immoral in the eyes of many. Singer also points out that there are many living things that do not have a functioning brain, yet are still alive. This makes us reconsider using brain activity as means to define whether a human being is alive or not. It is undeniable that there are some brain functions that are very important and some that are not as important. It is now up to both science and the ethical to decide which of these are vital to claim life.
Singer concludes this section of this article saying “To claim that human beings die when they have irreversibly lost the capacity for consciousness is too paradoxical. Instead we could accept the traditional conception of death, but reject the ethical view that it is always wrong intentionally to end the life of an innocent human being.” I agree with Singers opinion on the definition of death and believe that it is up to us as a society to balance both scientific and ethical views on this subject.
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