Miller FG, Truog RD. Decapitation and the definition of death. J Med Ethics. 2010 Oct;36(10):632-4.
Although established in the law and current practice, the determination of death according to neurological criteria continues to be controversial. Some scholars have advocated return to the traditional circulatory and respiratory criteria for determining death because individuals diagnosed as 'brain dead' display an extensive range of integrated biological functioning with the aid of mechanical ventilation. Others have attempted to refute this stance by appealing to the analogy between decapitation and brain death. Since a decapitated animal is obviously dead, and 'brain death' represents physiological decapitation, brain dead individuals must be dead. In this article we refute this 'decapitation gambit.' We argue that decapitated animals are not necessarily dead, and that, moreover, the analogy between decapitation and the clinical syndrome of brain death is flawed.
From the article
Critics of a return to relying solely on traditional circulatory and respiratory criteria for determining death have lodged what they regard as a decisive refutation: namely, that this position implies that a decapitated human being or other type of animal would be alive so long as it maintains circulatory and respiratory functioning…
Thus, if we are willing to accept decapitation as death, we should also be willing to accept physiological decapitation (total brain failure) as death.
When unpacked logically, this ‘decapitation gambit’ consists of two closely related arguments, which can be stated formally as follows.
Decapitation is an infallible sign and sufficient condition of death.
It is possible for a decapitated animal to maintain circulatory and respiratory functioning, either spontaneously for a short period of time or with mechanical assistance.
The circulatory-respiratory standard for determining death identifies the presence or irreversible absence of circulation and respiration as determining life and death.
It follows that the circulatory and respiratory standard must be false as a necessary and sufficient condition for determining death, because premises 1 and 2 entail that an animal dead by virtue of decapitation can maintain circulation and respiration.
Brain death constitutes physiological decapitation.
Decapitation is an infallible sign and sufficient condition of death.
Hence, individuals diagnosed as brain dead are necessarily dead.
Common and central to both of these arguments is the first premise in argument one and the second premise in argument two. Is decapitation an infallible sign of death? As the quote from Lizza suggests, it may seem perfectly obvious that decapitation constitutes death and thus without need for any explanatory rationale. However, several rationales might be provided to support this proposition. First, it is self-evident. Second, everyone agrees that a decapitated animal is dead. Third, it has been universally adopted by authoritative commentators within Orthodox Judaism as an infallible sign of death. Fourth, in view of the role of the brain in integrating the functioning of the organism as a whole, a decapitated animal without a brain is necessarily dead. Finally, the permanent absence of consciousness signifies death of the human being, and a decapitated human body lacks the organ responsible for consciousness.
We contend that the first four rationales are either logically or empirically deficient and thus fail to establish that a decapitated animal is necessarily dead. The fifth rationale does not count as a refutation for the position that advocates sole reliance on circulatory and respiratory criteria for determining death. After demonstrating that a decapitated organism can be alive according to a biological conception of death, we challenge the thesis that brain death constitutes physiological decapitation…
But is the decapitated animal invariably dead at the moment when decapitation occurs? It is necessary to answer this question in order to avoid conflating a diagnosis with a prognosis of death—a conflation which has been common in the literature on the definition of death…
Decapitation normally sets in motion a process of disintegration of the organism as a whole. All biological functions integrated by the brain necessarily cease. It doesn't follow that the organism as a whole has become entirely disintegrated at the moment of decapitation…
Think of the proverbial farmyard scene of a chicken with its head cut-off running around before collapsing. Is this a dead chicken on the move? This case challenges the claim of self-evidence as well as the proposition that everyone agrees that a decapitated animal is dead. It seems counter-intuitive to declare that the moving chicken is already dead, rather than dying and soon to be dead. Likewise, it seems natural to describe the chicken as dropping dead when it collapses…
Whether this degree of integration is sufficient to conclude that the chicken continues to manifest the ‘integrated function of the organism as a whole’ may be debatable; however, the question of whether the chicken is alive or dead turns upon a judgement about the degree of this integration, not upon the mere fact that the chicken is decapitated…
We contend that this experiment proves the very opposite of what was intended. The fact that the investigators were able to maintain circulation and respiration in a decapitated sheep, along with continued gestation of the fetal lamb for 30 min, indicates that vital functioning of the organism as a whole can be preserved despite decapitation, with the aid of mechanical ventilation and pharmacological intervention. For those who believe that pregnant brain dead women who can gestate a fetus in the intensive care setting must be alive, this experiment provides no evidence to the contrary. Instead, it demonstrates that decapitation is not incompatible with life.
The decapitation gambit fails. Setting aside any preconceptions about whether decapitation constitutes death, the sheep experiment proves that a decapitated animal can continue to live with the aid of technological intervention…
These functions include circulation, respiration, digestion and metabolism, excretion of wastes, temperature control, fighting infection, wound healing, growth and sexual maturation in the case of children, and gestation of a viable fetus for up to 3 months in the case of pregnant women. As the brain is not necessary to make possible these integrative functions of the organism as a whole, continued living is not incompatible with physiological decapitation…
How good, in fact, is the analogy between decapitation and brain death? Obviously, no brain functions are possible in the decapitated animal. This would also be true if the accurate clinical diagnosis of irreversible apnoeic coma, known as brain death, reflects total brain failure. But whether this is true is an empirical issue. Multiple studies have shown that, in fact, most patients diagnosed as brain dead continue to manifest some brain functions, most commonly the regulated secretion of the hormone vasopressin, which is critical to maintaining the body's balance of fluid and salt.
Courtesy of Doximity