J Med Ethics 35:616-620 doi:10.1136/jme.2009.030627
  • Paper
  • Ethics

Death and organ donation: back to the future

  1. F G Miller
  1. Correspondence to Dr F G Miller, Department of Bioethics, National Institutes of Health, Building 10, Room 1C118, Bethesda, MD 20892-1156, USA; fmiller{at}
  • Received 13 April 2009
  • Revised 21 May 2009
  • Accepted 5 June 2009


The practice of transplantation of vital organs from “brain-dead” donors is in a state of theoretical disarray. Although the law and prevailing medical ethics treat patients diagnosed as having irreversible total brain failure as dead, scholars have increasingly challenged the established rationale for regarding these patients as dead. To understand the ethical situation that we now face, it is helpful to revisit the writings of the philosopher Hans Jonas, who forcefully challenged the emerging effort to redefine death in the late 1960s.


  • Funding This research was supported by the Intramural Research Program of the Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health.

  • Competing interests None.

  • Provenance and Peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • The opinions expressed are the views of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy of the National Institutes of Health, the Public Health Service, or the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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