Guest Commentary

Opinion: Doctors Have No Legal Obligation To Treat The Dead

, The Connecticut Law Tribune


Thus, even if medical technology keeps certain bodily organs functioning, a person falling under the act's second definition is no longer alive. Accordingly, no court or legislature should require physicians to treat a dead person, even when families or loved ones insist otherwise. As Caplan bluntly puts it: "Even the Texas Legislature cannot defeat death."

The medical community, of course, is partly at fault. The very phrase "brain death" might imply it is something other than death, or else why use the modifier? Just as confusing is the concept of "turning off life support" when the patient is already dead. Such linguistic imprecision might offer hope where there is none and give room for lawyers and their experts to debate the undebatable.

In Jahi's case, her parents wanted the court to consider the opinion of Dr. Paul Byrne, a neonatologist and pediatrician who writes for the conservative Christian website Byrne titled his Dec. 24 column "Jahi is not really dead" and had previously espoused the belief that "so-called 'brain death' or 'cardiac/circulatory death' are terms concocted by transplant physicians and their allies who wanted to enlarge the donor pool by including patients who are really not dead in the traditional sense of the word."

Such a view has no medical, ethical or legal basis. Dr. Kevin Doyle, a cardiologist in Baltimore, told me regarding the Oakland case, "Any death is tragic, particularly that of a child. But a person who is brain dead is dead and a physician has no duty to continue providing medical care in that instance."

The case of Marlise Munoz is even more disturbing. Not only is a hospital continuing to supply "life support" for a patient whose life is over, it is doing so contrary to the wishes of both the patient and her family because of a poorly conceived law of questionable constitutionality. Even worse, a woman who is dead is being kept preserved to incubate a fetus whose health is anything but certain. This is death with the cruelest indignity.•

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