Sunday, February 28, 2016

Christianity: Grounds to exempt a patient from being considered "dead"?

What would you do if a family member of yours was suddenly pronounced brain dead? This is a trying issue for a family in New Jersey.

According to The Daily Beast, two years ago, at the age of thirteen, Jahi McMath was wheeled into an operating room in her home state of California, for what was expected to be a tonsillectomy. However, after she began to hemorrhage blood during the surgery, she became unconscious, and was eventually pronounced brain dead.

A majority of the time, when a patient is pronounced brain dead, they are considered to no longer be a living being, due to their vegetative state. In fact, within the United States, 50 of the 51 states consider a patient whom is brain dead to no longer be living, issuing patients who do encounter this state, a death certificate. According to the National Kidney Foundation, brain death is an irreversible condition, which occurs after some sort of injury or trauma to the brain, which inhibits a blood supply from flowing into the brain. Without an active blood supply, the brain will no longer function, and as a result, will die. As stated previously, this condition is irreversible. There has never been a reported case of a patient who has recovered from brain death. In addition, brain death is a legal definition of death.

Once a patient is proclaimed brain dead, with the permission of family members, they are removed from life support. However, this is not the case with fifteen year-old, Jahi McMath and her family.

Shortly after the incident, the state of California issued Jahi McMath a death certificate, seeing as she was in an irreversible, vegetative state. Jahi McMath’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, did not agree with the doctor’s prognosis, claiming that although her daughter was brain dead, that she was not actually dead, and would, with the help of her Christian God, be able to make a full recovery. As a result, Winkfield refused to allow the doctors to remove her daughter from life support.   

Now, two years later, Winkfield has moved her daughter to the state of New Jersey, the only state within the United States, which considers Jahi McMath to still be a living being. Since moving to New Jersey, Winkfield has worked hard in order to get the state of California to rescind Jahi McMath’s death certificate, under the request of a religious exemption. It is here that one may ask: should Jahi McMath be exempted from being considered dead by the state of California, due her family’s religious beliefs?

Winkfield wishes to be exempt from California’s law due to the fact that she believes her daughter, with the help of prayer and other religious activity, will make a full recovery, since becoming brain dead. According to, Winkfield claims that Jahi McMath’s brain death was wrongly proclaimed due to the fact that she still has parts of her brain, which are still active, and has, with the help of her God, made improvements within the past two years. In addition, Winkfield desires to move back to her home state of California, however, fears her daughter will not receive ongoing medical care. Thus, Winkfield is requesting a religious exemption, asking that the death certificate be repealed.

In all, Jahi McMath should be exempted from the California state law. While one could make the argument that voiding Jahi McMath’s death certificate is wrong, and to some degree pointless based upon scientific evidence, her parents do have the right to free exercise based upon their Christian beliefs and values.

Similar to Wisconsin v. Yoder, it may be determined that Jahi McMath’s parents have the right to decide whether or not their daughter, who with the help of modern day medicine still has a functioning heart and lungs, should be deemed dead or alive; it all comes down to the fact that Winkfield and her family have the right to keep their daughter on life support, due to their belief that their God will heal Jahi. In all, Jahi McMath is incapable of making the decision herself, thus allowing her parents to make the decision for her, due to their right to practice their rights as her parents.

However, giving Jahi McMath’s family a religious exemption may open a door for other’s who may wish to be granted a religious exemption under less severe circumstances. In addition, giving one singular family a religious exemption may pose issues between the state and similar cases, which have been previously decided within the court. In turn, this may cause lawmakers to question where the line may be drawn between those who may be exempted and those who may not be.


Caroline Vauzelle said...

Your conclusion is really well made and perfectly illustrates the issue put forward by this case. Having a loved one “removed from life support” because they are brain dead is known to be one of the hardest things one may go through in their life. Even if a person is not religious, they may still hope for a miracle. However, taking care of someone who is brain dead and on life support still demands a lot of work, and it might potentially occupy a part of nurses’ and doctors’ time that would normally have been reserved for people who are actually alive and in pain. There are limits defined by science for the sake of the functioning of our societies, and questioning those limits might eventually threaten the functioning of our societies itself. This is why I think authorizing such an exemption is a very dangerous slippery slope indeed.

Sarah A said...

This one I think also comes down to practice vs. belief. The family's belief that their daughter should be kept alive is valid, but is their action of keeping her alive constitutional? I have to disagree that they have the right to keep her alive in practice. In practice, there are many other people who are being affected by the parent's decision. I wonder if this family is making use of publicly provided health care in order to keep their daughter alive. If so, the state is losing money for someone that science, and the state believes is dead.

Matthew L. said...

I agree with your statement that by barring the family from receiving an exemption from having their daughter declared dead, impacts their religious freedom; however, I also see where the two previous commentaries highlight the fact that this can cause society as a whole to suffer. In establishing this, I do not believe we are able to create a certain set of guidelines that would be universally applicable and not on a person to person basis. Due to this, I believe that an exemption, even in this case alone is unable to be awarded because the result would set an uncontrollable precedent to burden society as a whole due to the beliefs of only some of the population.

Thomas M. said...

Obviously this is a terrible situation, and I could never imagine having to make such an awful choice. I, however, disagree with Alex that the death certificate should be rescinded. I do not see it as infringing upon religious rights but being a medical fact that Jahi has passed away. From a purely emotional standpoint, I understand 100% why Ms. Winkfield would not wish to take her daughter off life support, but from a legal basis, Ms. Winkfield's religious freedoms are not being taken away from having her daughter being pronounced medically dead.

Natalie Kawalec said...

I can’t even imagine how difficult this situation must be for her loved ones. However, I don’t believe that Jahi McMath’s family should be given a religious exemption due to the slippery slope that would inevitably be made by this decision. Although her family may believe that she is still alive, science has established what defines a living person and a nonliving person for the purpose of medical care being efficiently allocated to those who need it most. Therefore, the state granting the family a religious exemption due to their religious beliefs and continuing to provide medical care to Jahi compromises the amount of care available to those who are legally recognized as still being alive.

Richard Shin said...

I can never imagine what would happen if a family member I knew was considered brain I wouldn't be sure how to feel if the state considered the family member dead. I am not too sure where religion can tie into this however i feel like the family brought it in because the emotional connection in this. Even though the state considers the person dead the family wanted medical care to continue which is fair. I am not sure if this is a religious freedom the state should let people who are brain dead stay on medicine no matter the situation.

nick paray said...

No, there is a compelling state interest to keep the definition of death similar. The parents certainly have the right to believe their daughter is still alive, but she is legally considered dead. The should also be able to keep her on life support, if they want to pay the bill, but the religious beliefs of a family should not be able to change the definition of a medical phenomenon.

Sara G. said...

I think that Jahi's mother has the right to keep her on life support, but should not be allowed to revoke her death certificate. If she is willing to pay what it costs to keep Jahi on life support, she should be allowed to do so. She shouldn't be allowed to revoke her legal death though, since people on life support are considered legally dead. Someone's religious views cannot change legal definitions of medical occurrences. Allowing Jahi an exemption to this law opens up the door for all kinds of exemptions to laws regarding death, and potentially other medically defined states as well. What would the court say if someone claimed they don't believe in death at all? Would they then get an exemption for their dead loved ones? If someone didn't believe a child was truly alive until a certain point in life would they be allowed to postpone the issuing of a child's birth certificate? There is nothing wrong with Jahi's mother believing she is still alive but she shouldn't be allowed an exemption to a legally defined state based on this.

Kiriko Masek said...

This is a heartbreaking situation and is impossible to even fathom what Jahi's family had to endure. Although I feel for the family and I personally believe that the family should have the right to decide whether or not to keep their daughter on life support, I agree with Sarah's comment that this is a situation revolving around practice and belief. Since being determined brain dead is an irreversible diagnosis, Jahi would not medically benefit from being kept on life support. As horrible as it is for me to say, the time and money spent on keeping Jahi's body could have been used on someone who's conditions are reversible and able to heal.