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A philosophical assessment of TK’s autopsy report: Implications for the debate over the brain death criteria

Journal title
The Linacre quarterly
Publication year
Austriaco, Np O. P.

In recent years, there has been increasing evidence that the totally brain-dead patient is able to continue to live and to maintain some integrated functions, albeit with the necessary assistance of mechanical ventilation. Several years ago, the autopsy report of a totally brain-dead patient named TK who was kept on life support for nearly twenty years was published in the Journal of Child Neurology. He remains the individual kept on life support the longest after suffering total brain failure. In this essay, I argue that the clinical data described in the autopsy report demonstrate that TK’s long-term survival after total brain failure supports the claim acknowledged by the President’s Council on Bioethics that the brain-dead patient retains his bodily integrity. As such, he is not dead. He is still a living, though severely disabled, human organism, a human person made in the image and likeness of God. LAY SUMMARY: Traditionally, the presence or absence of bodily integration has been used to definitively discern the presence or absence of life in the human being where decomposition of the body is the surest sign of death. The autopsy report of a patient named TK who was brain-dead for nearly twenty years demonstrates that brain-dead patients retain their bodily integrity. As such, TK and other brain-dead patients are not dead. They are living, though severely disabled, human organisms, who are human persons made in the image and likeness of God.

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