At What Moment Does a Person Die?

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in the June 2001 issue of CWR
2001 06 01
Reproduced with Permission

The Holy Father has newly described death as "the total disintegration of that unitary and integrated whole that is the personal self. It results from the separation of the life-principle (or soul)from the corporal reality of the person." The Pope declares licit the transplantation of the heart and other single organs after this marker has been passed. The "Essay" in CWR March 2001 dares to differ.

The article side-steps the Popes marker of death, then spins its wheels on a home-made mantra: "If organs live, the body is not dead." On the contrary we respond: "The sum of the parts that was once a body, is no longer a living whole."

The heart, of course, may continue to beat after the unitary and integrated whole of the body's life has disintegrated. But a beating heart does not a body make.

Comparisons help. When a suicide terrorist explodes his body into a thousand pieces, scattered organs may show signs of life for a limited time. But all the king's horses and all the king's men, can't put it together again, to live a second life.

When a member of a high trapeze team loses his grip, the team tumbles. Members save their individual lives (we hope), but the act with its integrated team-function has failed.

Puncture a balloon: its flabby remains lie there, impotent to plug the hole and refill itself.

In brief, body parts may function as island pieces of a has-been body even after the unifying principle has departed, but the organs are now no longer parts of a living body.

The authors claim that the clearly determined parameters commonly held by the international scientific community to which the Pope refers do not exist. There is a bit of hair-splitting here. Criteria and tests are known among transplant agencies globally. In Japan national guidelines are enforced by consensus rule. In one case the test of dropping water into the victim's ear was not possible because the ear had been severed. No ear, no test, no transplant! Again, when the mandatory timing between tests was not observed the process was ruled irregular.

There are guidelines here and there and everywhere. What the Pope refers to, we can assume, is not so much a codified international agreement on the specific criteria and the manner of testing. What is substantial and crucial is the mandatory use of criteria and tests to be applied to every transplant donor, by which doctors, in every part of the world, can arrive at moral certitude that this body no longer functions as an integrated unity, and that the sum total of the organs cannot be maneuvered back into the lost life for a second run.

The Holy Father has provided us with a valid marker for death. It is time to move on.