Los Angeles neurologist D. Alan Shewman figures large in brain death debate

70-page article in most recent Communio

Communio_39.3Communio is the quarterly journal founded in 1972 by a Catholic pantheon – Ratzinger, von Balthasar, Ouellet, de Lubac, Bouyer, Kasper and others. Its most recent issue, although labeled Fall 2012, was mailed out in the last two weeks. Most of this issue is taken up with a debate on brain death.

Nicholas Tonti-Filippini, a bioethicist from the pontifical John Paul II for Marriage and Family in Melbourne, Australia argues the mainstream view. Which is the “mentalist view” of death, that “when a human being ceases to be able to function at those higher levels of activity that we consider human or even sentient life, then the person has died even if the body continues to function.”

Shewman, who is professor of neurology and pediatrics at UCLA med school and chief of department of neurology at Olive View-UCLA medical center in Sylmar (CA), argues this way: “Neither the empirical evidence nor Church teaching requires us to hold that the brain is ‘essential’ for organismic somatic integration, or that the brain’s death is automatically the death of a human being.”

To read Tonti-Filippini’s article, click “Bodily Integration”: A Response to Robert Spaemann

To read Shewman’s article, click You Only Die Once: Why Brain Death is Not the Death of a Human Being; A Reply to Nicholas Tonti-Filippini

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  1. I find it interesting that when a doctor declares someone “brain dead” he assures the family as well as other medical staff that the “BD” person before them is now truly a corpse, however, when they finally take the ‘BD” person’s organs or, at the very least, turn off the ventilator, the time of death is again recorded. This second “death” is what is placed on the death certificate. God bless you Dr. Shewman for having the courage to speak up for the truth. Sadly the “brain death” criteria is now blindly accepted by most Catholic clergy.

    More food for thought; in the early days of “legal” abortion, each aborted human child had to be given a death certificate. Planned Parenthood fought long and hard to convince the state to drop this death certificate requirement. PP finally won.

    ‘Brain Death’ organ donation, as well as Abortion, are both huge money making businesses conducted at the expense of the weak and vulnerable for the convenience of someone more powerful.

    They both need to stop!

  2. Maryanne Leonard says:

    These questions are often so extremely nuanced that is a tragedy that we now have to face and analyze endless scenarios that never faced people in all the eras of human history before the postmodern era we are living in now. The “miracles of modern medicine” are ensuring that our average length of life in industrialized countries is generally dramatically greater than that of our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents as a rule, but tragicially, our increased length of life has not contributed in a corresponding manner to our enjoyment of life, according to surveys of the elderly.

    Many of them feel they have outlived their usefulness to others and some even to themselves, and a shockingly high number are now being essentially warehoused at enormous expense, which can make them feel like burdens to their families or to society. (Let me tell you about my recently-deceased stepmother, and you won’t believe it!)

    Surprisingly, many are unhappy to be living longer than they would have had Mother Nature alone been in charge of the length of their natural lives.

    Before our tinkering with the environment, the elderly of yesteryear often lived more fully satisfying and/or healthy, vibrant lives – though not always, of course! For many of us, modern medicine has saved us from premature death, and the newly elderly are often grateful and living long and healthy lives for which they and their families are grateful indeed.

    We are fortunate to have brilliant people from within the Catholic faith willing to dedicate themselves to examining and working toward resolving theoretical and theological questions of profound importance to real human beings.

    We have basic Catholic values with which to base our conclusions, thanks be to God, but some if not many here-and-now issues call for guidance from our best minds.

    If we had all the answers, we would have no concerns about tremendously important questions such as these. Much prayer and deep consideration are required to help us deal with questions no generations before ours ever had to face. We must do the right thing – always! – by our loved ones and our fellow human beings, always with the knowledge that indeed, God is watching us. Love and integrity answer most of our questions with immediacy, but these days, I’m very sad to say, not all of them are simplistic situations with obvious answers. Let us pray.

    • Maryanne, Why do many (the elderly) feel that they have outlived their usefulness to others and some even to themselves? Wouldn’t this be because they have lost or never had God’s vision for their lives? Weren’t we created by God in order to know, love, and serve Him and to be happy with him in the next life? The Catholic Church teaches that even the simple act of offering up our sufferings has enormous value in it. By doing this, tremendous graces are obtained for oneself and others. And how our world is in need of these graces!

      Exchanging God’s purpose for our being with our notions of what our purpose for being is always cause for trouble.

      Anyway, I see little connection with the article about the debate on “brain death” and your post.

      • Maryanne Leonard says:

        You will if you live long enough to be facing these issues in your family or yourself, Tracy. Your comments show that you either have never faced this in your family, or if you did, you didn’t connect very closely with what the person was going through. I am writing from a great many experiences within my family, my husband’s much larger family, and from having spent 3 years in bed not expecting to live. A lot goes through your mind during such experiences, and there is a true connection between what I shared and what is being attended to in the article, which tries to intellectualize a profound human experience. If you don’t see any connection, either I have failed to communicate, or you have failed to understand, but at any rate, your comments feel a little bit off subject as well, but that doesn’t mean you should not share them. I have found that commenting helps us all to share meaningful experiences, questions, and vaues, and if a discussion about life and death isn’t meaningful, I don’t know what is. Now that people can pull the plug on us and end our lives with a little or no effect on them but a powerful effect on the person allowed to remain plugged in or unplugged, everything relaed to life and death seems to me quite worthy of discussing so as to help us evolve emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually to a higher level as God’s creations. Our technology is far ahead of our mental and spiritual advancement, to say nothing of our emotional maturity. I think your comments belie a complete lack of understanding of the plight of the elderly, and I suppose not everyone can relate to those who have lived longer than they have. Putting yourself in the place of others not only gives you a broader perspective on life and an appreciation of how to live your own well, but it helps you prepare for your own future life-threatening situations or those of your loved ones. Address this subject with a more comprehensive embrace, and you are sure to benefit more broadly than you appear to expect.

        • Maryanne, it wasn’t my intention to offend you, only to reiterate our beautiful Church teaching. You are 100% correct when you say that “a lot goes through your mind during such experiences.” I guess this will be a surprise to you, but I have extensive experience in the area of death and dying. I won’t go into the details here as they are way too long. I will say this however, I have found that most of my fellow Catholics are scandalized when I share with them an apparently little known fact that St. Therese of Lisseux experienced profound suicidal thoughts during her final days on earth. This fact, however, does not in anyway change what I said in my previous post. The devil wants us to despair; thus the temptations he harassed St. Therese with. Praise be Jesus, St. Therese won the struggle!

          As far as reading the article, I should have mentioned I read Dr. Shewman’s entire article which CCD has linked to. In that article, Shewman rebuts Nicholas Tonti-Filippini “mainstream” assertions which is the “mentalist view” of death. As Shewman’s article is academic in nature, it isn’t the easiest read, but well worth the effort if you haven’t already read it. It is about 72 pages long. When I have a chance I will read the Nicholas Tonti-Filippini article. Anyway, Maryanne, I’ll bet if we sat down to chat we would be more in agreement than it would seem here.

          Lastly, what really bothers me is the fact that, so far, you and I are the only ones to have commented on this article. I said in my first post that sadly the “brain death” criteria is now blindly accepted by most Catholic clergy. I should have more accurately said that sadly the “brain death” criteria is now blindly accepted by most Catholics.

          Dr. Shewmon is truly a lone brave soldier sounding the alarm to the majority who aren’t interested in hearing the inconvenient truth that “brain death” isn’t nor has it ever been death at all! It is especially sad that even the vast majority of “pro-lifers” ignorantly accept the “brain death” view of death. God help us! How many of these people even know why the term “brain death” came into being in the first place or why the truth is purposely being censored?

          O Mary conceived without sin, pray for us who have recourse to thee.

          • I should further mention that Dr. Shewmon himself once accepted the “medical establishment’s” definition of “brain death” as did I. But as they say “the truth is in the details” and ‘the truth will set you free”!

      • Great point, Tracy, pointing out the need to develop God’s vision which is more than society’s utilitarianism, or “usefulness to society”. Feeling that one is no longer useful is to shut one’s eyes to God and His union with one’s soul, ie with one’s being. How many elderly sit or lay around all the time watching TV, when they could be watching God. What does one have to do in throughout one’s life in order to develop the talent of “watching” God’s vision? If a soul were to get really good at this, then the final transition would likely be rather seamless, which is the true “seamless garment” where one exchanges one’s earthly garment for one’s Heavenly garment, in the blink of an eye, an eye which practice trains to stay focused on Jesus Christ.

        • Maryanne Leonard says:

          Beautiful points, both Tracy and Skai. I found your comments of real interest and am in accord. Skai, your comment about the elderly siting around watching TV when they could be watching God was of merit as well, but thankfully we have EWTN now, so that both endeavors can be pursued by the elderly or any other dedicated couch potato with a TV. I think few people realize what a profound gift EWTN is to our generation of the elderly and bedridden among us, both Catholics and those who have always been curious about Catholicism but have not actively pursued their interest in the faith. Mother Angelica has probably done more than any other single human being during our lifetimes to propagate the faith around the nation and around the world, an amazing contribution for a feisty little old nun born into a family with few worldly advantages, but some mighty fruitful spiritual lessons to offer.

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