Last week, a Washington, D.C. court heard the case of Motl Brody, an Orthodox Jewish boy that a hospital declared dead because he has no brain function. Because his heart and lungs are still functioning, however, according to his parents' religious beliefs, he is still alive. Slate used this case to discuss how various religious communities are beginning to accept the lack of brain function as an appropriate definition of death despite long traditions focused on vital signs:
How is death defined in other religions?
Usually, the same way it has traditionally been defined in all cultures: by a lack of vital signs. Most world religions lack a clear doctrinal statement that certifies when, exactly, the moment of death can be said to have occurred. For most of human history, there was no need for one since prior to the invention of life-support equipment, the absence of circulation or respiration was the only way to diagnose death. This remains the standard of death in most religions. By the early 1980s, however, the medical and legal community also began to adopt a second definition of death—the irreversible cessation of all brain functions—and some religious groups have updated their beliefs.
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Christians who ardently support the traditional circulatory-respiratory definition of death tend to be fundamentalists or evangelicals. They may point to Leviticus 17:11, which states that "the life of the flesh is in the blood," or Genesis 2:7, which describes how God "formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being." Most mainstream Protestant groups in the United States accept brain death as a valid criterion for death, as does the Roman Catholic Church, though that ruling is not without controversy.
In 1986, the Academy of Islamic Jurisprudence—a group of legal experts convened by the Organization of the Islamic Conference—issued an opinion stating that a person should be considered legally dead when either "complete cessation of the heart or respiration occurs" or "complete cessation of all functions of the brain occurs." In both cases, "expert physicians" must ascertain that the condition is irreversible. However, the academy's statement was merely a recommendation to member nations, not a binding resolution, and the question remains an open one for many Muslims.
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