Chances are, you know of someone or had a loved one who was given a declaration of brain death. What if we told you your state might loosen the rules to declare patients brain dead and harvest their organs?
The Uniform Law Commission (ULC) is a group of lawyers that draft model legislation on important issues that should be consistent across the country. This model legislation is then handed to the states, whose individual legislatures can decide whether to pass the model language into law.
In 1980, the ULC drafted a new definition of death. This model law, called the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA), states that a person can be declared dead in one of two ways:
- After irreversible cessation of circulatory and respiratory functions; or
- After irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain, including the brain stem.
While the first option represents the historical method of declaring a patient dead when their heart and breathing have stopped, the second way of declaring someone dead is much more controversial. This language recognized “brain death” as an official form of legal death, paving the way for hospitals to harvest organs when it was not possible before. All 50 states, including Texas, have adopted some form of the UDDA language.
Texas Right to Life and many Pro-Life experts are skeptical of the concept of brain death as a whole, because it requires us to believe that a patient with little or no brain function is “dead” despite having other fully functioning organs, including a beating heart. Pro-Life advocates have always rejected the notion that the only quality that gives a human being worth is their cognitive or rational abilities. All human beings are worthy of protection despite their levels of mental capacity or consciousness. So, in this case of brain injured patients, if there is any question about whether a patient is living or dead, we should not assume someone is dead. Quite the opposite. When there is uncertainty, we should always err on the side of life.
Unfortunately, the mere concept of brain death is not the only concern.
Currently, the ULC is considering revising the UDDA. Under these proposed revisions, a patient could be declared legally dead solely if the patient has “permanent coma, cessation of spontaneous respiratory functions, and loss of brainstem reflexes.” In other words, a physician would no longer be required to examine the functioning of the entire brain before declaring the patient dead.
In 2013, 13-year-old Jahi McMath defied the odds by outliving a declaration of brain death by five years and even entering puberty. Such physical development is only possible with hypothalamic brain function, an area of the brain the UDDA proposed revisions do not require to be tested.
Additionally, the proposed revisions change the definition of death such that brain-injured patients may receive less care and attention in practice. This is deeply troubling. Texas Right to Life’s Patient Advocacy team has personally witnessed cases of physicians retracting brain death declarations after determining that the patient did in fact show signs of life. The last thing we should do is liberalize the language and make it easier to declare brain death.
Texas Right to Life recently wrote a letter to the ULC opposing these revisions. Texas Right to Life’s president, Dr. John Seago, writes:
While we do believe the UDDA warrants significant revision, both our patient advocates and policy experts at Texas Right to Life have grave concerns with this proposed language. The new criteria is inexcusably subjective and liberalizes the definition of human death by straying from any basis in an objective, biological criteria.
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If the UDDA is revised, the Texas Legislature may move to adopt this “partial brain death” criteria as law in our state. This change would allow Texas physicians and hospitals to more easily devalue vulnerable patients by prematurely declaring them dead and donating their organs. This would only worsen an already troubling piece of model legislation.
Texas Right to Life’s legislative team and patient advocacy team work year-around crafting legislation and practical solutions to restore patients’ rights and medical freedom. This year, Texas Right to Life negotiated, helped craft, and lobby for a historic reform of the Texas Advance Directives Act, including the 10-Day Rule. The new law that takes effect in September includes practical tools and protections that we advocated for based on our firsthand experience of assisting Texans and their families in hospitals.
Similarly, Texas Right to Life is advocating the ULC does make substantial changes to UDDA that will instead empower families and brain-injured patients, and encourage medical providers to advocate for Life. You can support our efforts to build a Pro-Life Texas and encourage other states to do the same by contributing monthly.