Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 40, Issue 5, pp 381–401 | Cite as

Controversies in defining death: a case for choice

  • Robert M. VeatchEmail author


When a new, brain-based definition of death was proposed fifty years ago, no one realized that the issue would remain unresolved for so long. Recently, six new controversies have added to the debate: whether there is a right to refuse apnea testing, which set of criteria should be chosen to measure the death of the brain, how the problem of erroneous testing should be handled, whether any of the current criteria sets accurately measures the death of the brain, whether standard criteria include measurements of all brain functions, and how minorities who reject whole-brain-based definitions should be accommodated. These controversies leave little hope of consensus on how to define death for social and public policy purposes. Rather, there is persistent disagreement among proponents of three major groups of definitions of death: whole-brain, cardiocirculatory or somatic, and higher-brain. Given the persistence and reasonableness of each of these groups of definitions, public policy should permit individuals and their valid surrogates to choose among them.


Brain death Higher-brain death Whole-brain death Circulatory death Conscientious choice Brain death criteria 



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature B.V. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Kennedy Institute of EthicsGeorgetown UniversityWashingtonUSA

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