The world is moved by the children killed by the bombing in Palestine but does not shed tears for little Indi, sentenced to death in Great Britain by the state authorities, against her parents’ wishes.1 Why can this happen? Because life is considered only from a material and utilitarian point of view. We forget that every man, even a brain-damaged person, lives because he has a soul, and for that reason, has an inalienable dignity which entails the right to life.
One of the reasons why an innocent human being can be sentenced to death today is the concept of brain death, introduced in 1968, when a real anthropological revolution was proposed at Harvard University.
Until that date, doctors were responsible for ascertaining that death had occurred, identifying the causes, but not defining the exact moment. This assessment was done by verifying the definitive cessation of vital functions: breathing, circulation, the activity of the nervous system.
In August 1968, Harvard Medical School proposed a new criterion for ascertaining death based on a strictly neurological finding: the definitive cessation of brain function, defined as “irreversible coma”.
There is a direct link between the definition of brain death proposed at Harvard Medical School in the summer of 1968 and the first heart transplant, performed by Christiaan Barnard in December 1967.
Heart transplants required that the recipient’s heart still be beating, that is, according to the canons of traditional medicine, that he still be alive. The removal, in this case, was equivalent to ending a human life, even if it was done “for a good cause”. Science presented morality with a dramatic question: is it permissible to end the life of a sick person, even one at the point of death or irreversibly damaged, to save another human life of superior “quality”?
Facing this crossroads — which should have forced a close confrontation of opposing moral theories: the traditional and the neo-utilitarian — Harvard University took on the responsibility of “redefining” the concept of death in such a way as would allow it to bypass the ethical problem of heart transplantation.
In order to continue on a path that would save the lives of many people, but which was also extremely profitable for the medical and pharmaceutical industry, there were two possibilities: to change the moral law to allow the killing of the innocent, or to change the criteria for ascertaining death, identifying as dead those who, until then, science had considered to be alive.
The first path was to modify traditional morality, according to which the innocent cannot be killed in the name of a new utilitarian ethic. The second path is to redefine the concept of life, stating that the being whose life was ended was not a human being. This is what happened with the Harvard definition of 1968.
Harvard’s redefinition of death was accepted in almost all American states, and later also, in most so-called developed countries. In Italy, the “turning point” was marked by law n. 578 (29 December 1993), Article 1 of which states, “Death is identified with the irreversible cessation of all functions of the brain.”
It was an anthropological revolution because to identify death with the cessation of all functions of the brain is equivalent to denying the existence of a spiritual soul as the vital principle of the body and identifying life with the physiological activity of the brain. Man is reduced to a corporeal organism, of which the vital principle is cerebral activity. It is that philosophical conception that reduces thought, consciousness and all spiritual activity to “products of the human brain”.
Today therefore, to justify ending the life of a brain-injured person, we either resort to a utilitarian ethic, whereby the human being can be killed if this benefits society, or we deny the coexistence of the biological individual and the human individual, stating that since man is a rational animal — i.e. an animated being of a rational nature, when rationality is lacking, as is the case not only with embryos and fetuses not yet self-conscious but also with anencephalic children or brain-dead people — the killing of a living being is permissible, precisely because it is devoid of rationality.
In reality, both science and philosophy show that the irreversibility of the loss of brain functions, ascertained by the “flat encephalogram”, does not prove the death of an individual. Anyone who wishes to explore this important question in more detail can turn to the volume Finis Vitae: Is brain death still life? co-published by the National Research Council and Rubbettino, including contributions from eighteen international scholars.2
Life and death are not constructed at a desk or in a laboratory. Life begins when God infuses the soul into the body, and ends when the body separates from the soul. The vital principle of the body is not the brain, destined to corrupt with the rest of the body, but the soul, which is an incorporeal, immaterial, spiritual reality, and as such incorruptible and eternal. Man has a soul. This soul is destined for eternity. Let us always remember this.
- The article was written before Indi Gregory’s death on 13 November.
- English edition: Ed. Roberto de Mattei, Finis Vitae: Is Brain Death Still Life? (Rubbettino, 2006).