The Case For Life Support

What exactly demarcates life from death? That is the question currently in debate by the family of Jahi McMath and their supporters, a community outraged by the set of circumstances following the 12-year-old’s hospitalization. McMath, who suffered heart complications after undergoing a tonsillectomy, is brain dead — that is, she cannot breathe or sustain a heartbeat without mechanical support — yet her family refuses to take her off life support, despite Oakland Children’s Hospital’s push to act otherwise.

McMath’s family cites religious reasons for keeping McMath on a ventilator, stating that the young teen is alive as long as she continues breathing, even if that means being completely dependent on a ventilator. The hospital, whose official position is that it is morally wrong to keep a “dead” person on life  support, has been told by a California judge to keep McMath on the ventilator until January 7, when the teen will either be taken off  any life-supporting machinery or be transferred to another facility willing to take her in.

So, is Jahi McMath really dead? Legally, she is. According to California state law, brain death is a valid determination of whether an individual is deceased or living.

While the McMath family continues to believe Jahi will return to a normal state of brain activity, brain death is widely regarded by the scientific community as irreversible. No patient has ever been able to come out of it. It is for this reason that many have come to the side of Oakland Children’s Hospital, because giving the family false hope seems unethical.

However, even if she is dead, should the hospital heed to the requests of Jahi’s family? Despite my agreement with the hospital’s official stance on the matter, it is hard not to say “yes” to that question.

Sure, it may seem unethical to treat a dead body and raising the hopes of bringing McMath back to life, but is it ethical to refuse medical service to a family begging the hospital to keep their child on a respirator? Yes, the chances of Jahi McMath coming back to life are likely zero, but if a family is willing to do whatever it takes to continue and pay the hospital to keep their daughter breathing, I see little reason for the hospital to pull the plug.

The current battle between the McMath family and Oakland Children’s is about what steps are required to transfer the teen to another facility. The family refuses to give specifics, but has said that they are discussing with several facilities across the country about the possibility of moving Jahi’s body out of Oakland.

However, to do so, Jahi must undergo several surgeries to fit her with respiratory and feeding tubes, operations that raise concerns over, again, the ethicality of medically treating a dead body. Therefore, the war continues to wage on, and my stance remains the same; for which side would you prefer to be on: the side that hopes for life or the side that concedes to death?

 

Bryce Tham is a first-year computer science major. He can be reached at btham@uci.edu.