Can a Brain-Dead Teen’s Family Claim Religious Freedom? The Case of Jahi McMath


Jahi McMath was issued a death certificate two years ago. Now her parents and pro-life activists are exploiting a gray area of neuroscience for a religious exemption to keep her ‘alive.’

The body of a young girl permanently occupies a hospital bed in a rental apartment in New Jersey. The letters of her name, pink and surrounded by paper butterflies, hang above her head; inspirational quotes and Bible verses are mounted on pastel-colored paper and stuck to the wall. A striped blanket hides the medical technologies that keep her in this world: There is a feeding tube surgically inserted through a hole in her stomach. There is a ventilator tube inserted through a tracheotomy in her throat.

Her mother and a 24-hour nursing staff change her diapers and turn her body from side to side to prevent her skin from developing dangerous bed sores. She cannot eat, open her eyes, speak, or leave her bed. New Jersey is the only state in the country in which this girl is not dead.

Her name is Jahi McMath and just over two years ago, after an extensive tonsillectomy, she began to hemorrhage blood and became unconscious. Doctors in her home state of California ultimately issued her a death certificate. Jahi is in New Jersey because her family refuses to accept the doctors’ assessment that she is dead. Or to be specific, because it is the specifics that are now at issue in multiple court cases at the state and federal level: Jahi McMath is, according to every doctor (not employed by her parents or lawyer) who has examined her, brain dead.

Jahi’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, says she is waiting for God to intervene. She has told the press that Jahi is improving. On Jahi’s birthday last October, the family posted on their Facebook page:

Thank you Heavenly Father for the Gift of Life, the Life You granted Jahi, a Life she so much deserves and desires to live faithfully for You through the next year and many many more years to come.

Happy Birthday Beautiful Jahi, You Are 15 today, your friends love you, your family loves you, many many people worldwide love you, but most importantly God loves you.

May you, Jahi McMath receive the gift of continued healing and full recovery.

May God protect and keep you safe, showering you and your loved ones with strength, love, health of mind, body, soul and more blessings in abundance. Keep Winning, Love you always, #TeamJahi.

In all 50 states, brain dead is dead. Brain cells have never been shown to come back to life once dead. But in New Jersey, state law permits those who do not agree—those very few who have religious convictions that the heart is still the sole indicator of death, even if that heart is artificially supported—to keep their loved ones on physiological support. Some family members are willing to huddle in daily prayer for as long as a miracle takes. In this new formulation of “natural death,” the sustenance of machines becomes natural.

The difference between alive and dead may seem quite clear, yet the definition of death has changed over the past several decades because of medical advances. Death once meant the almost simultaneous cessation of heart rate, breathing, and brain function. The advent in the late 1960s and early ’70s of defibrillators and respirators, able to keep the heart and lungs functioning indefinitely, shifted the definition of death to the brain and its mysterious, complicated activities.

To address those resulting ethical questions and establish a public policy consensus, a presidential commission in 1981 concluded that “humans shall be pronounced dead when all brain functions are lost irreversibly, even if the heart and respiratory function continue.”

But problems with the commission’s statement persist. Many find that the requirement that every part of the brain be irreversibly dead for death to be pronounced ignores the fact that ancillary parts of the brain are still active after a person has ceased to exist. Other parts of the brain may survive and be detected by scans, hormonal regulations may continue despite the death of other parts of the brain. Are these “residual functions” really signs of life? And what then, is the difference between biological life and sentient life? Where in your brain do you exist? And what makes you alive? Are you alive if you grow? If you menstruate? If you recognize your mother? If you can open your eyes? Or yawn? Others have contested the very term “brain death” because it creates confusion, as though brain death is a stage and not the end. Call it what it is, they say: death.

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SOURCE: The Daily Beast – Ann Neumann