Public Policy for a Diverse Society

The public policy issue in the definition-of-death debate arises because there are diverse, deeply held understandings concerning the nature of the human and human death. Because these views derive from fundamental philosophical, religious, or cultural perspectives, should people have any say in the concept and criteria for determining death that might be applied to them? If, for example, a person is aware that being declared dead under the brain-death criterion contradicts his or her religiously-based understanding of death, should that person be allowed to conscientiously object to the use of this criterion? Some argue that toleration in such matters is imperative because of the extraordinary damage done to persons by ignoring and disrespecting their foundational understandings. They claim that individuals should be allowed to use a conscience clause to express their wishes. Others claim that diversity on such a fundamental matter as the determination of when someone has died can only lead to social and legal instability. The next section explores the diverse philosophical perspectives that might be taken on human death. On this basis, the reader must decide on the importance and practicality of a conscience clause for those who disagree with the concept and criteria for determining death that have become established U.S. policy.

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