The following opinion piece by Dr. Paul Byrne; Bishop Rene Henry Gracida; Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi; Father Elias Mary Mills, FI; and Christine M. Zanier, M.D. appeared on Renew America Mar. 18.

[The following Response to “Jahi McMath and Determining Death,” Ethics and Medics 39(3) March 2014, was submitted to National Catholic Bioethics Center for publication, which was denied. Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old girl, is living and needs physicians, theologians, lawyers and others to stand up for her. This is about protecting Jahi and everyone, not only Catholics, but the bioethics center has done nothing to protect or support Jahi, or anyone else in a similar condition.]

Dead is dead – except when it isn’t. The National Catholic Bioethics Center ethicists have claimed repeatedly that Jahi McMath is dead. Yet Jahi continues to live. Jahi is Jahi, not a dead body receiving treatment, care and love. Jahi can be called a corpse, but she is not a corpse; she is a living human being.

Prior to the desire to get beating hearts and other healthy vital organs for transplantation, physicians cautiously determined death in order not to treat the living as dead. Then illegal and immoral heart transplantation began. To make it legal, in 1968, a committee at Harvard concocted the first set of “brain death” criteria (not based on scientific investigation) known as the Harvard Criteria. During the next 10 years, 30 disparate sets of criteria were published, each one tending to be less stringent. Recent publications state that there is no consensus about which set to use (Neurology Jan. 2010) and brain related criteria are not evidence based (Neurology July 2010). A person can be declared dead by one set of criteria, but be alive by other sets.

The National Catholic Bioethics Centre ethicists refer to an address by Pope John Paul II in which he stated that the “criterion . . . does not seem to conflict with essential elements of sound anthropology.” Use of “seem” indicates that there very likely were some unanswered questions. Pope John Paul II later wrote, “Each human being, in fact, is alive precisely insofar as he or she is corpore et anima unus (Gaudium et Spes, 14), and he or she remains so for as long as this substantial unity-in-totality subsists. In the light of this anthropological truth, it is clear, as I have already had occasion to observe, that ‘the death of the person, understood in this primary sense, is an event which no scientific technique or empirical method can identify directly.'” (Address of 29 August 2000, 4, in: AAS 92 [2000], 824)

Does the declaration of death in accord with the legal “accepted medical standards” make Jahi truly dead? The bioethics center ethicists have access to court records indicating that Jahi’s heart is beating and she has normal blood pressure, temperature and respiration, albeit supported by a ventilator. Does every ethicist agree that Jahi is no longer corpore et anima unus? If they say that Jahi’s soul is not in unus – united with her body – then whose soul or what kind of soul is animating Jahi, that is, activating her beating heart and bodily functions?

The ventilator pushes air into Jahi; the living Jahi pushes the air out. Respiration occurs in Jahi’s healthy lungs because Jahi is living. A ventilator can push air into a corpse but it does not come out. The ventilator is effective only in a living person….

To read the entire piece, click here.