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A dead woman kept alive? The story makes no sense, unless...

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Jul 11, 2017

What’s wrong with this headline?

Brain dead pregnant woman, 21, was kept alive for 123 days...

Obvious, isn’t it? If she was kept alive, she can’t have been dead. “Alive” and “dead” are not compatible conditions. But when brain-death is involved, journalists often make significant errors. This particular story, from London’s tabloid Daily Mail, is confused from the very first line:

A brain dead pregnant woman was kept alive for 123 days - the longest time ever - before delivering twins by emergency caesarean section.

Well, actually I’ve been “kept alive” for much longer than 123 days—as has everyone who reads this piece. Once again, if the mother was dead, she couldn’t have been kept alive. But there was more to the story. The unfortunate woman, who had suffered a massive cerebral hemorrhage, was pregnant. Remarkably, she remained pregnant—that is, her body continued to nourish the unborn twins.

Doctors decided to save the nine-week-old embryos after their hearts continued to beat inside their mothers’ womb.

How could unborn children derive sustenance from a dead body? The simple answer: they couldn’t. All of the mother’s vital organs were working. Yes, the organs had artificial help. But life-support systems can only do so much. A ventilator, for example, can push air in and out of lungs, but it cannot exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide; it cannot put oxygen into the blood stream. Living lungs can do that; dead lungs cannot. But the brain was not functioning, you say? That doesn’t make sense, either. Heart and lungs and intestines and glands receive their impulses from the brain. If the brain was dead, how were the other organs functioning?

Now notice something else about this story: If you remove the notion of “brain death” from the account, the confusion vanishes. A pregnant woman was kept alive by extraordinary means until her unborn children were delivered.

The hospital staff spoke and sang to the unborn twins during the pregnancy, we are told. I hope they spoke and sang to the mother, too, because while she may have been incapable of responding, she was still there.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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