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A narrative review of the empirical evidence on public attitudes on brain death and vital organ transplantation: the need for better data to inform policy
  1. Seema K Shah,
  2. Kenneth Kasper,
  3. Franklin G Miller
  1. Department of Bioethics, NIH Clinical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, USA
  1. Correspondence to Seema K Shah, Department of Bioethics, Division of AIDS, National Institutes of Health, NIH Clinical Center, Building 10, Room 1C118, Bethesda, MD 20892, USA; shahse{at}mail.nih.gov

Abstract

Vital organ transplantation is premised on ‘the dead donor rule’: donors must be declared dead according to medical and legal criteria prior to donation. However, it is controversial whether individuals diagnosed as ‘brain dead’ are really dead in accordance with the established biological conception of death—the irreversible cessation of the functioning of the organism as a whole. A basic understanding of brain death is also relevant for giving valid, informed consent to serve as an organ donor. There is therefore a need for reliable empirical data on public understanding of brain death and vital organ transplantation. We conducted a review of the empirical literature that identified 43 articles with approximately 18 603 study participants. These data demonstrate that participants generally do not understand three key issues: (1) uncontested biological facts about brain death, (2) the legal status of brain death and (3) that organs are procured from brain dead patients while their hearts are still beating and before their removal from ventilators. These data suggest that, despite scholarly claims of widespread public support for organ donation from brain dead patients, the existing data on public attitudes regarding brain death and organ transplantation reflect substantial public confusion. Our review raises questions about the validity of consent for vital organ transplantation and suggests that existing data are of little assistance in developing policy proposals for organ transplantation from brain dead patients. New approaches to rigorous empirical research with educational components and evaluations of understanding are urgently needed.

  • Attitudes Toward Death
  • Clinical Ethics
  • Dead donor rule
  • End-of-life
  • Definition/Determination of Death

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