Re A and the United Kingdom Code of Practice for the Diagnosis and Confirmation of Death: Should a Secular Construct of Death Override Religious Values in a Pluralistic Society?

HEC Forum 30 (1):71-89 (2018)
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The determination of death by neurological criteria remains controversial scientifically, culturally, and legally, worldwide. In the United Kingdom, although the determination of death by neurological criteria is not legally codified, the Code of Practice of the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges is customarily used for neurological death determination and treatment withdrawal. Unlike some states in the US, however, there are no provisions under the law requiring accommodation of and respect for residents' religious rights and commitments when secular conceptions of death based on medical codes and practices conflict with a traditional concept well-grounded in religious and cultural values and practices. In this article, we analyse the medical, ethical, and legal issues that were generated by the recent judgement of the High Court of England and Wales in Re: A [2015] EWHC 443. Mechanical ventilation was withdrawn in this case despite parental religious objection to a determination of death based on the code of practice. We outline contemporary evidence that has refuted the reliability of tests of brainstem function to ascertain the two conjunctive clinical criteria for the determination of death that are stipulated in the code of practice: irreversible loss of capacity for consciousness and somatic integration of bodily biological functions. We argue that: the tests of brainstem function were not properly undertaken in this case; the two conjunctive clinical criteria set forth in the code of practice cannot be reliably confirmed by these tests in any event; and absent authentication of the clinical criteria of death, the code of practice wrongly invokes a secular definition of death based on the loss of personhood. Consequently, the moral obligation of a pluralistic society to honor and respect diverse religious convictions to the greatest extent possible is being violated. Re A is contrasted with the US case of Jahi McMath in which the court accommodated parental religious objection to the determination of neurological death codified in the Uniform Determination of Death Act. We conclude that the legal system in the United Kingdom should not favour a secular definition of death over a definition of death that is respectful of religious values about the inviolability and sanctity of life. We recommend the legal recognition of religious accommodation in death determination to facilitate cultural sensitivity and compassionate care to patients and families in a pluralistic society.



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Yusra Mohamed
York University