It’s hard to believe that only 41 years ago, a person on a ventilator with a beating heart was protected from murder by U.S. law. All of that has changed since 1981 and the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA). Today, people with a damaged brain that meet an elusive irreversible standard are considered dead under the UDDA, even if the heart continues to pulsate in their chest. Less than 50 years ago, physicians could be charged with murder for engaging in this willful act to end a person’s life.
Recently, the tragic death of the actress Anne Heche has put a spotlight on declaring people dead with biological signs of life. According to the news report, at the time of her car accident on August 6, she was conscious and able to speak to first responders. At the trauma center, she was said to be stable. Then two days later, Heche went into a coma. By August 11, a representative speaking on her behalf said she was “not expected to survive.” On August 12, Heche was declared dead under the brain-death criterion of the UDDA in the state of California.
The actress desired to be an organ donor. Although legally dead, Heche was kept alive for two more days to preserve her organs. “Anne is legally dead according to California law,” her spokesperson said, “[h]er heart is still beating, and she has not been taken off of life support. This is in order to allow OneLegacy Foundation enough time to find recipients who will be a match.” On August 14, heart-beating Heche was wheeled to the operating room through a line of medical professionals standing in silence, a ceremony referred to as an Honor Walk.
Jahi McMath, a thirteen-year-old girl, declared brain dead in California, never received an Honor Walk. The young black teen was dishonored and discriminated against in the most inhumane ways! Why? Her parents refused to donate her still-beating heart and other organs to OneLegacy Foundation. Although legally dead in California, Jahi died seven years later in New Jersey from liver failure and has two death certificates. According to medical experts, she no longer met the UDDA criterion for brain death at the time of her “second death” so, apparently, the damaged brain standard is in fact reversible!
Dr. Alan Shewmon, a retired Professor of Neurology and Pediatrics at the University of California, testified in court on Jahi’s behalf. He said, “I can assert unequivocally that Jahi currently does not fulfill diagnostic criteria for brain death.” Shewmon and many other medical specialists spoke at “The 50-Year Legacy of the Harvard Report on Brain Death” in 2018. The consensus from the experts at the conference was the UDDA brain-death criterion is a legal
Tragically for organ donors like Heche, the brain-death fiction ensures a cruel death that is tantamount to murder. Since Heche’s neurological decline happened so quickly, perhaps with more time and treatment, she could’ve improved equally fast. Many medical professionals are aware that after swelling in the skull decreases neurological function can improve. We will never know. Heart-beating Jahi got better even after she was denied essential treatment for neurological function. So have many others, not to mention the hundreds of people declared brain dead with beating hearts that have been misdiagnosed and are walking with us today. If your heart is beating, you’re still alive! Don’t be a registered organ donor. Our deepest sympathies to the family and friends of Anne Heche.