Cross-posted from HealthLawProf Blog. Originally posted January 20, 2014.
What are We Learning About Brain Death from the McMath and Munoz cases?
By Jennifer S. Bard, J.D., M.P.H., Ph.D.
With the understanding that this is one of those topics that health law professors are supposed to know something about, here is a quick update of what’s going on. Along with my own views about the possible misuse by hospitals of declaring brain death in what are really medical futility cases.
Jahi McMath, age 12, in California who lost consciousness after a routine tonsillectomy and Marlize Munoz, age 32 in Texas who collapsed on her kitchen floor have both become involuntary public figures as their families struggle to make sense of both their medical conditions, which are complex, and of the laws which have declared them both legally dead based on a lack of brain activity. In legal terms, a person declared “brain dead” has the same status as any other dead person. Each state is entitled to make its own decision of whether or not to adopt a brain death statute. California’s and Texas’ are similar in that they require the “complete cessation” of all brain activity. The declaration of death is, in all states, a legal act. Most hospitals have a policy similar to this one which set criteria and require the participation of at least two doctors. A declaration of death cuts off any rights of the individual. The family of someone declared dead is no longer a surrogate decision maker. Rather, they have something like property rights to the disposal of the remains. More pointedly, a declaration of death ends all eligibility for medical insurance, including Medicaid and Medicare. If a family decides to release the organs for donation, their host becomes not a patient but rather a “heart beating organ donor.”
When a family wants to donate their loved one’s organs, a declaration of brain death is helpful mechanism for doing so. Indeed, a series of high profile cases involving anencephalic infants in the 1990s pointed out the frustrations of parents who wanted to donate their children’s organs but could not because they retained minimal brain function. However, there is never any legal need for a declaration of brain death in order for a family to withdraw life sustaining treatment. In 1993 bioethicist Robert Veatch wrote an important article in the Hastings Center Report in which he pointed out that “no one really believes that literally all functions of the entire brain must be lost for an individual to be dead.” And indeed, no one really believes that a piece of paper converts a warm, breathing body from alive to dead.
Many families in the McMath’s situation would have, even in their shock, heeded the doctors advice and stopped treatment. Although we do not, yet, know what actually happened, I suggest that it is possible that cases like the McMath’s can arise when hospitals and doctors seek to pressure families into withdrawing treatment by, essentially, taking away their right to receive care. This can be a lot more direct than the often times consuming and complex process of withdrawing “futile” care. Indeed, in the actual absence of all brain function there are no interventions that can replace the complex functions of the human brain and deterioration and decay are inevitable.
Although it is easy enough to say that Jahi’s family’s refusal to accept reality stems from ignorance or grief, it is not fair, as some have done, to call them crazy for mistrust of a diagnoses that is based in theory, not reality. Jahi may be irrevocably brain injured, but there are increasing signs that she may indeed have some brain function. Her thrashing movements may be reflex, not purposeful—but corpses do not have reflexes. This week, neonatologist Dr. Paul Burn notes, without citation so we do not know if it is true, that Jahi, has regained sufficient hypothalamus function to regulate her own body temperature. A corpse does not regulate its own body temperature.
This is not to suggest that the doctors are wrong about the amount of brain damage she has sustained or her chances of even retaining a sliver of consciousness—but that is not the same as “complete cessation” of all brain activity.
In contrast to the case in California, Marlize’s family, in Texas, want to let her go. The hospital is invoking a provision of the Texas Advanced Directives Act law which prohibits a hospital from withdrawing life sustaining treatment from a pregnant women. It may be, as bioethics experts law Tom Mayo at SMU explain, that this law does not apply after a declaration of death, but only when the mother is in a permanent coma. But, again, this points out the limits of using the legal concept of brain death to describe the medical condition of any particular person. Marlize may well be dead, but her fetus certainly is not. But until Marlize’s family gets clarification in the case it has filed in Tarrant County, or, ultimately, the Texas Supreme Court this distinction does not change their situation.
So where does that leave a health law professor? One of the reasons brain death is so hard to define is that we know relatively little about how the brain works. As the American Academy of Pediatrics Guidelines Determination Of Brain Death In Infants And Children,“ No randomized control trials examining different strategies regarding the diagnosis of brain death exist.” It even seems increasingly likely that we are not even sure where all of what we consider to be brain function happens—it turns out-—as folk wisdom has always believed—that a lot of it may happen in our guts. .
It may be that these two cases spur changes to the law—although other equally publicized situations have not—but for teaching purposes they both are helpful in exposing law students to how much we actually do not know about the human body and, especially, our brains.
Wired Magazine, in August 2011, ran a fascinating article called, “7 Creepy Experiments That Could Teach Us So Much (if they weren’t so wrong). These “7 Creepy Experiments” include some truly creepy things like using “a synthetic virus” to insert into an embryonic cell a “reporter” gene (green fluorescent protein, for example) in order to track embryonic development throughout the life cycle or deliberately separating twins at birth in order to study them.” I use it in my Human Subject Research Law class to get students thinking about the limits of consent, but more generally it and these cases tell us something about the reality that we need to make and enforce law in the face of limited information.