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My “journey from being a vocal advocate of ‘brain death’ to a vocal critic”—the Story of World-Renowned Neurologist D. Alan Shewmon

I love surprises, and yesterday’s surprise was an absolute delight! I had just finished reading Dr. Shewmon’s article, “The Fundamental Concept of Death—Controversies and Clinical Relevance,” published in the March 26, 2024 edition of Neurology. I sent an email to thank him for writing it. He replied:


And the Apologia just got updated (by me) and posted to the Catholic Culture Library, FYI:

Spread the word!



That was a huge surprise! Several months ago, Dr. Shewmon and I corresponded about his Apologia, or a formal written defense of one’s position, which showed how he arrived at his anti-brain death position after being pro-brain death. Back then, I wrote that some articles were “just too important to leave buried in an obscure medical journal for scholarly consumption.” An attempt was made to republish this article as a rework in a “small book,” but the back-and-forth labor for editing and the time commitment was too much for both of us. That is solved now, thanks to Dr. Shewmon’s willingness to republish with his editing at Catholic Culture. The newly revised article is titled: “Recovery from ‘Brain Death’: A Neurologist’s Apologia – Revisited After 27 Years.”


The March 26, 2024 article cited above distills Dr. Shewmon’s methodical analysis and honest reflection about “brain death” for nearly a half-century, both clinically and academically. Questions about the line between life and death have become arbitrary, and Dr. Shewmon mentions the three views of death that prevail today in the United States:


(1) biological: cessation of the integrative unity of the organism as a whole (…the 1981 President’s Commission), (2) psychological: cessation of the person, equated with a self-conscious mind (endorsed by half of neurologists), and (3) the vital work concept proposed by the 2008 President’s Council on Bioethics.


The article digs deeper into each of these views. Dr. Shewmon contends that brain death does not correspond to the valid biological concept of death as “the organism as a whole.” Many in the neurological community agree, so they have moved on to the second (psychological) concept, claiming that brain death is death on that basis. For position two these people are viewed as “good as dead” or possess a “life unworthy of living.” Tragically, however, these people may be legally killed by the removal of their organs.

“Give the gift of life” means just that. An organ donor’s life benefits numerous others judged more worthy of living. All the while, transplant centers rake in billions of dollars from Medicare and Medicaid. From one donor judged as no longer worthy to live, eight people can receive his or her vital organs—it’s basic math. With our financial problems in healthcare, one would expect the federal government to develop creative solutions to cut costs (like doing a deep dive into exploitative organ procurement practices and the costs of expensive transplant programs). Not so with the White House! President Biden recently wrote a proclamation praising organ donation to increase taxpayer funding.


With all of the Nazi rhetoric that is thrown around to attack political opponents, a phrase that never seems to cross the lips of anyone in the United States is Lebensunwertes Leben, a German phrase translated as “life unworthy of life” that advocated euthanizing those with mental disabilities for utilitarian purposes. Dr. Shewmon writes about this Nazi horror in his Apologia as well, and his struggle after a priest accused him of endorsing the policy. Shewmon’s apology deserves careful reading and reflection by physicians, philosophers, theologians, pastors, politicians, and the American Academy of Neurology (AAN). God willing, those who were once vocal advocates of “brain death” will become vocal critics like Dr. Shewmon.


Tolle lege—take up and read, or just click the links!  

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