Negotiating Ambiguities in Life and Death
May 30, 2016
By Margaret Hayden
18th Annual Henry K. Beecher Prize in Medical Ethics.
It might not seem obvious that distinguishing life from death is a difficult task, but careful analysis reveals ambiguities at both the beginning and end of life. This paper contrasts the biological and philosophical defenses of brain death with the discussion surrounding the ethics of abortion and the research uses of human embryos. In the following pages, I detail the evolution of brain death as a biological and philosophical concept and compare this to the parallel ambiguity and controversy that surrounds the beginning of life. I draw out the inconsistencies between the two approaches: despite the presence of several reasonable philosophical and biological critiques, brain death is defined rigidly by a single legally enforceable definition, whereas the bioethical and legal world has given more tolerance to the multiple philosophical and ethical conclusions consistent with the ambiguous biology at the beginning of life. In addition, there has been a much more public debate around the biology, ethics, and morality at the beginning of life, especially regarding abortion and the uses of stem cells. In this paper, I argue that brain death deserves a similarly honest and shared debate.
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