Paul A. Byrne, M.D.
Jahi McMath--accepting her life
By Paul A. Byrne, M.D.; Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi; Father Peter Damien Fehlner, FI, STD; Father Elias Mary Mills, FI; and Christine M. Zainer, M.D.
March 18, 2014

[The following Response to "Jahi McMath and Determining Death," Ethics and Medics 39(3) March 2014, was submitted to National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC) for publication, which was denied. Jahi McMath, a13 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 NCBC 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 (NCBC) 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 NCBC 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 NCBC 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.

The emphasis by neurologists and NCBC ethicists has been about taking away the ventilator that supports Jahi's vital activity of breathing. In a declaration of "brain death," turning off the ventilator becomes a question only after a family has refused to donate their loved one's organs. If Jahi's mother had answered yes to organ taking, Jahi's organs would have been dissected out; Jahi's heart would be beating in someone else. Jahi's organs, given to Jahi by her Creator, would be scattered into others. Thank God for Nailah, Jahi's mother, a mother more powerful than the transplant industry and the NCBC ethicists. Yes, Jahi would be dead after her beating heart and other vital organs had been taken.

The NCBC ethicists note that "an independent court-appointed pediatric neurologist from Stanford University" found nothing different. Did anyone expect a Court appointed neurologist to find something different? The NCBC ethicists also note, "The coroner's office has issued a death certificate." Yes, a death certificate was the required contingent for Jahi's mother to get her daughter out of the clutches of those determined to end Jahi's life. The Bureau of Vital Statistics recorded Jahi's death. It was the first time a death certificate was issued for someone with a beating heart and respiration. When a non-donor is declared "brain dead," a death certificate is not issued until there are no signs of life.

Two very important Catholic doctrines, which if not dogmas, are such because they are universally true. First, the soul is the principle of life. Death is the separation of the soul from the body. A spirit exists where it operates. We know the soul is still present because we see its operations in the body of Jahi. Therefore, Jahi is not dead and does not meet the condition laid down by Pope John Paul II, August 29, 2000:"Vital organs which occur singly in the body can be removed only after death, that is, from the body of someone who is certainly dead." This was reiterated by Pope Benedict XVI, November 7, 2008, "Individual vital organs cannot be extracted except ex cadavere." Second, when in doubt, we must presume in favor of Jahi's life to protect her personal dignity as a human person made in the image and likeness of God and the sanctity of that life, which is a gift from the same God.

"Brain death" is one of the leading causes of the dehumanization of the human person in our culture today. We are treating the living as dead for utilitarian purposes – namely to get organs. We are looking upon our brothers and sisters as NAPA body parts stores. This is not and has not been in the mind of the church nor in accord with Blessed Pope John Paul II's thoughts and wishes as expressed in the Gospel of Life.

The Church cannot endorse ending the life of Jahi. Yes, pray for Jahi, her family and everyone helping Jahi and her family.

Paul A. Byrne, M.D. FAAP

Bishop Rene H Gracida

Father Elias Mary Mills, FI

Christine M. Zainer, M.D. (Board certified, American Board of Anesthesiology)

See also and

© Paul A. Byrne, M.D.; Bishop Rene Henry Gracida, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi; Father Peter Damien Fehlner, FI, STD; Father Elias Mary Mills, FI; and Christine M. Zainer, M.D.


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Paul A. Byrne, M.D.

Dr. Paul A. Byrne is a Board Certified Neonatologist and Pediatrician. He is the Founder of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children's Medical Center in St. Louis, MO. He is Clinical Professor of Pediatrics at University of Toledo, College of Medicine. He is a member of the American Academy of Pediatrics and Fellowship of Catholic Scholars... (more)


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