Brain stem death: managing care when accepted medical guidelines and religious beliefs are in conflictConsideration and compromise are possibleCommentary: Delay in stopping treatment can become unreasonable and unfair

Professor Peter Singer's Views on Brain Death

29 April 2002

Readers following this debate may take an interest in the philosophical views of Peter Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton University's Center for Human Values. In his various writings he has challenged our most closely held beliefs on infanticide, euthanasia, and the moral status of animals. He also challenges the conventional wisdom on brain death.

In his book Rethinking Life and Death (1995) Singer notes that following the Harvard Brain Death Committee report published in 1968, most countries have adopted brain death as an acceptable criterion for declaring a person legally dead. He also notes that this event transpired with virtually no opposition despite its ground-breaking nature. What is less widely known, Singer points out, is that this “redefinition” coincided historically with the advent of organ transplantation — a mere nine months before the Harvard report came out, Dr. Christiaan Barnard performed the first successful cardiac transplant. Singer doubts that this is a coincidence.

Singer also points out that it is simply not true that all brain function necessarily ceases with brain death – for instance, pituitary function often continues for some time after formal criteria for brain death are met.

Singer takes the position that brain dead individuals are still alive, but that organ harvesting from these individuals is none the less acceptable. His position is that rather than employ artificial, contrived, or bogus definitions of death, we should recognize that the only intellectually honest course is to admit that all lives are not equally valuable and that some lives are indeed in such a degraded and hopeless state that even though they are technically “alive,” it is still ethically acceptable to utilize their organs for transplantation.

Competing interests: None declared

D. John Doyle, Staff Anesthesiologist

Cleveland Clinic Foundation, Cleveland, Ohio, USA, 44195

Click to like: