Let me say up front: I am a registered organ donor. I joined the ranks just a few weeks ago when I renewed my driver’s license and discovered—much to my surprise—that I had forgotten to check the donor box when I got my first New York license years ago. This time I signed up without a moment’s hesitation. Organ transplants save thousands of lives in the United States every year, and if I had a fatal accident or disease I would certainly want my death to assist someone else’s life. Enlisting as a donor is one of the easiest forms of altruism around.
So it was with some trepidation that I agreed to publish Dick Teresi’s cover story, “The Beating Heart Donors.” Not because of its actual thesis, which I find fascinating and powerful, but because of the way the piece could be easily misconstrued. Many people already feel queasy about signing up to donate their organs; anything that increases those anxieties could have unfortunate consequences.
At the same time, Teresi’s article raises worthy concerns about how medical specialists treat people at the edge of death. Doctors routinely make heroic efforts to keep their patients alive. It’s entirely reasonable, then, to investigate how they define the moment when those efforts have failed, and how they treat patients who have technically crossed over. Nobody is suggesting that we end the practice of organ donation. If anything, it should benefit from assurances that a patient’s final stages in a hospital are treated with dignity.
In the end, my decision to print the article was an easy one. Both science and journalism are built on the premise that all meaningful questions are worth asking. Teresi’s answers are disturbing but far from complete. Nobody knows what, if anything, brain-dead patients experience, and none of them could plausibly return to consciousness to tell us. All we can do is read on and take one more step toward an information-based ethics—one that respects death while giving primacy to life.