Process or Event?
  • Barbara Mackinnon


One of the central issues in recent bioethical literature is concerned with determining the time of death, or “so to speak” redefining death in the light of problems introduced by modern medical methods of preserving life and controlling death.1 There now exist many fewer cases in which a person breathes his last and is suddenly dead. Apart from accidental or sudden death, today most people die in hospitals surrounded and aided by vast amounts of modern medical technology. Through this technology man is able to control in many cases the manner of and rate at which death takes place. The three great life-sustaining body systems—respiratory, circulatory, and nervous—when left to themselves fail almost simultaneously because of their physiological interdependence. Yet now heart and lungs can be kept functioning artificially even in cases where all central nervous system activity has ceased. This situation raises peculiar and important practical problems for medicine and law. Consider the quandary of the person who must turn off a respirator; is he simply acknowledging that the patient on it is no longer living, or has he helped to bring on his death?2 Or consider this case: A man shot in the head has resulting irreparable brain damage, his heart being kept beating and his breathing supported artificially until his heart can be removed for transplant. In the ensuing court trial the defense claims that the defendant who shot the victim did not kill him, for his heart was still beating. Rather the doctor who removed his heart for transplant killed him.3 Or consider the case of the man whose heart stopped beating for twenty-three minutes, and who is now claiming to have died and returned from the dead.4


Philosophical Issue Worth Living Central Nervous System Activity Factual Question Model Penal Code 
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  1. 1.
    Some recent discussions of this issue include: Robert M. Veatch, “Brain Death: Welcome Definition—or Dangerous Judgment?” Hastings Center Report, Vol. 2, No. 5 (November, 1972), 10–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Cf. Eliot Slater, “Death: The Biological Aspect,” in Euthanasia and the Right to Die, ed. by A.B. Downing (Los Angeles: Nash Pub. Co., 1969), pp. 49–60, andGoogle Scholar
  15. U.S. VonEuler, “Physiological Aspects of Aging and Death,” in The End of Life, A Nobel Conference, ed. by John D. Poslansky (Amsterdam: North Holland Publ. Co., 1973), pp. 23–35.Google Scholar
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    Kass, op. cit., p. 699. Kass refers for this distinction to H.C. Hopps, Principles of Pathology (New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1959), p. 78.Google Scholar
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    Cf. P.W. Bridgman, The Logic of Modern Physics (New York: Macmillan, 1927), andGoogle Scholar
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Copyright information

© Plenum Press, New York 1976

Authors and Affiliations

  • Barbara Mackinnon

There are no affiliations available

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