All this week we’re talking with our friends from Scientific American about endings: in nature, culture and science. For most of human history the clearest, most black and white ending in our lives was death. However, in recent decades, life support technology has made death a gray area, leading to right-to-life debates, as in the case of Terri Schiavo. But the question of when someone is dead becomes especially important when dealing with the process of organ donation.
We asked you, our listeners: If you are are an organ donor, what made you agree to it? If not, what's your reason against it? Let us know in the comments or call 877-8-MY-TAKE and we'll play the responses on the air.
In most donation cases doctors have a clear decision. If a patient is brain-dead, one can ethically harvest their organs after withdrawing life support. But, in the few cases where brain activity still exists, doctors have an agreed-upon set of ethics rules to refer to. Once the patient is taken off the ventilator and the heart stops beating, doctors wait for two minutes before declaring death. It is a situation in which every second counts; the sooner the organs are harvested, the better the chance of the donor recipient surviving. Some doctors are now pushing against that two minute boundary.
Robin Marantz Henig writes about these life and death decisions in her Scientific American article, "When Does Life Belong to the Living?" She writes that in the midst of this discussion, "the definition of death becomes a matter of giving one diminishing life the possibility of a second chance, by defining another diminishing life as already and irreparably over."
Dr. Bill Pietra faces this decision of when to declare the end of life. He is a pediatric heart transplant surgeon at Denver Children's Hospital. The group with the highest waiting list for new organs is infants, and Pietra understands ethicists' concerns. He says that many people forget that there is also a psychological need for the families of dying children to be able to save someone else's life as they watch their babies pass away.