Brain death is not a new phenomenon—it has been clearly established in clinical medicine and law for decades. Nonetheless, controversial cases involving brain death erupt into the news with distressing regularity. One recent example is the case of Jahi McMath, a California adolescent who met the criteria for brain death due to complications after a routine tonsillectomy. Jahi’s family was devastated, understandably, but their desolation took the form of denying that their child was dead. The McMath family succeeded in having the body of their deceased daughter transferred to the morgue, and then to another facility, which allegedly will continue to maintain Jahi’s organs as long as possible.

In another recent and distressing case, Marlise Munoz, a young pregnant wife and mother in Texas suffered a massive blood clot to her lungs late one night. The patient—and her fetus of 14...

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