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Is she dead?

January 5, 2014

Her name is Jahi McMath and she has become a news item like no other.  She is the 13-year-old girl who, after a routine tonsillectomy developed complications, ended up a center of controversy.  The hospital she is in, citing California law that her being brain dead with no hope of recovery (and several physicians say that is her state) says she is legally dead.  The family thinks otherwise and is fighting to keep her alive and get her moved to a facility that will care for her.

At the core the issue is what constitutes death in a legal sense?  The California law is not unique.  Every state in the union considers being brain dead as legal death.  A few states have qualifiers to this situation, such as the prohibition in Texas to declaring a pregnant woman legally dead until her fetus is delivered or dies, but the picture is pretty uniform across the country.

What makes this situation unique is that the laws exist primarily to aid families in being able to make painful decisions about people with no hope of recovery; to have a standard to work from.  It is rare that a family fights against this idea and seeks to keep a brain dead person breathing.  The McMath family continues to believe that Jahi has some hope of recovery and cite that they see some responsiveness in her.  It is not for me to judge this hope.

So what is a possible alternative to declaring brain death as legal death?  The obvious other choice is irreversible cessation of heart beat.  I suspect that this is what the McMath family would use as a definition.  Should California and other states change their definitions?  The McMaths are in a tiny minority in saying yes.

At the end the dispute revolves around who gets to decide the legal definition of death?  The McMaths say families should decide and some right-to-life advocates have echoed that position.  Other ethicists have said that families are often ruled by grief and emotion and do not make good judges of this decision.  They tend to think that doctors should make the choice and that the states should, as they have, take this from the family’s hands.  Who is right?

This is a complex and heartbreaking situation.  As a Christian I pray for this family.  But I am sure it is only a matter of time before some of my fellow believers will publish a “Christian viewpoint” on the whole matter and I am almost certain it will make me cringe if they do.  I have three main reasons for hoping we stay silent on this.

  1. Anyone who says there is a “biblical” answer to whether brain death or heartbeat cessation is right is kidding himself.  In Biblical times, and through much of human history, there was essentially no difference between the two.  When one happened, so did the other.  If you think that God embedded a message for the 21st century on how to choose and that you have discerned this hidden message you are doing the worst form of Bible exposition.
  2. Libertarians would say that the family can decide and of late most evangelicals trend to the libertarian side.  But there is a danger here.  If you think the families can choose then why can’t families also choose to have abortions.  All of us like the idea of personal choice when we make choices and others makes choices we like.  I tire of Christians who want liberty, particular religious liberty, but itch to have the liberty of others constrained when we don’t like their choices.
  3. It is none of our business, nobody is asking our opinion, and nobody wants it.  Let’s just stick with praying.

Since this was a pretty heavy topic, let me close with a link to an article that points out that legally dead can sometimes lead to strange results.

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