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Hastings Center News

Defining Death: Public Event Explores the Legacy of Brain Death and the Future of Organ Transplantation

Defining Death: Organ Transplantation and the 50-Year Legacy of the Harvard Report on Brain Death, the 2018 Harvard Medical School’s Annual Bioethics Conference, took place from April 11 to 13 in Boston. An annual event of the Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics, this year’s conference is cosponsored by The Hastings Center and the Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology, and Bioethics at Harvard Law School. Speakers at the conference will produce commentaries that will be published as a special supplement of the Hastings Center Report.

The conference, which is open to the public, explores the legacy of the 1968 report from the Harvard Medical School committee that proposed new neurologic criteria for determining human death. The resulting “brain death” standard had far-ranging consequences, including a significant impact on the development of organ transplantation. The conference assessed current practices and examine persistent controversies and challenges to the scientific and philosophical foundations of brain death, including the controversy over the case of Jahi McMath.

Hastings Center president Mildred Z. Solomon, who is also a professor of anaesthesia (part time) at Harvard Medical School, moderated two sessions, one on the history of the Harvard report and the other on donation after circulatory determination of death (DCDD), the older and more traditional way in which death was diagnosed before the legalization of neurologic criteria. At the historical session, she identifed the motivations that led the committee to propose the concept of brain death and highlight some of the controversies that followed. The second session on DCDD focused on contemporary challenges to organ transplantation, when patients are not brain dead, but have either died suddenly in uncontrolled circumstances or chosen to forgo further life-sustaining treatments.

Other speakers included Hastings Center Fellows James L. Bernat, Arthur Caplan, Robert M. Veatch, and Alex M. Capron.