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In defense of a pluralistic policy on the determination of death


In his paper “The challenge of brain death for the sanctity of life ethic”, Peter Singer advocates two options for dealing with death criteria in a way that is compatible with efficient organ transplantation policy. He suggests that we should either (a) redefine death as cortical death or (b) go back to the old cardiopulmonary criterion and scrap the Dead Donor Rule. We welcome Singer’s line of argument but raise some concerns about the practicability of the two alternatives advocated by him. We propose adding a third alternative that also – as the two previous alternatives – preserves and extends the possibility of organ transplantation without using anyone without their consent. Namely, we would like to draw readers’ attention to a proposal by Robert Veatch, formulated 42 years ago in his 1976 book “Death, dying, and the biological revolution” and developed further in his later publications. Veatch argues for a conscience clause for the definition of death that would permit people to pick from a reasonable range of definitional options. This autonomy-based option, we believe, is more likely to be practicable than the two options advocated by Singer. Furthermore, we present data from a study with Lithuanian participants that suggest that there is quite pronounced variation of preferences concerning death determination.

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