Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

Not quite dead?

By Phil Lawler ( bio - articles - email ) | Aug 17, 2022

If you’re following the debate about “brain death,” don’t miss this report in the Washington Post, analyzing coverage of the tragic death of actress Anne Heche. Here’s the eye-opening passage:

The Post’s obituaries editor, Adam Bernstein, said the newspaper doesn’t recognize brain death, which is sometimes partial, as a clear marker of death.

“It’s black and white. There’s no gray area here. If you’re on life support, you’re still alive,” Bernstein said. “Other publications can make their own judgment about when they’re comfortable publishing. I’m comfortable when someone is actually dead.”

After a horrible car accident on Friday morning, August 12, Anne Heche was declared “brain dead,” and many media outlets promptly reported her death. But in accordance with her wishes as an organ donor, she was kept on life support—showing unmistakable signs of lilfe, albeit with mechanical help and without detectable brain activity—while doctors determined whether they could harvest organs for transplant. Finally on August 14 she was removed from life support, and the awkward argument about her status (dead or alive?) was ended.

The Post was not alone in delaying the death announcement. The Post story notes:

The New York Times said it held off publishing Heche’s obituary until Sunday when her death was “officially confirmed”…

But wait. Under California law, “brain death” is death, and doctors had “confirmed” that diagnosis on Friday. The Los Angeles Times thought that the “brain death” diagnosis was good enough, and reported Heche’s death that day. Still the Washington Post would not accept “brain death” as real death, and the New York Times wanted the death “confirmed”—presumably by a report of something more definitive than “brain death.”

This sad case should confirm the enduring strength of the layman’s instinctive understanding that if a person is breathing, moving, heart beating, responding to stimuli—even with the help of machines—that person is not dead. Even after years of discussion about “brain death,” even in America’s most “enlightened” newsrooms, that gut instinct prevails. Where there’s life—any life—there’s hope. You’re not dead until you’re dead.

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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  • Posted by: grateful1 - Aug. 19, 2022 8:19 PM ET USA

    Never thought I'd say this, Phil, but you give the NYTimes and WaPo too much credit. Had Miss Heche not declared her intent to donate (which, to be fulfilled, required keeping her on life support), neither paper would've had a qualm about equating her brain death with bodily death. Only the prospect of utilitarian benefit (organ harvesting) made them delay the pronouncement."Gut instinct" about the intrinsic value of human life had nothing to do with it.

  • Posted by: rfr46 - Aug. 19, 2022 6:58 AM ET USA

    The Washington Post is an expert on brain dead, as it has a chronic and apparently incurable case. Also severe sociopathic disorder. Too bad they cannot recognize the truth about abortion.