Medical Treatment: Decisions and the Law

15. The End of Life


It might be thought that a concept as fundamental as death should be capable of clear and easily comprehensible definition. Unfortunately, advances in medical knowledge and techniques mean this is not so. The need for such  a precise definition is obvious: death marks the point at which the bundle of rights and obligations attached to a living human being ceases. The task of achieving a practical definition is complicated by the conflict between the medical recognition of death as a process and the law’s need to identify a point in time when death occurs. In part the perceived need for sophisticated criteria, capable of being established only by skilled medical diagnosis, may be thought to have been driven by the demand for a wider pool of candidates for organ and tissue donation. It would be unfortunate if this laudable aim resulted in an erosion of the recognition afforded to the need for protection of the living.

The status of a dead body is now also the subject of increasing attention. When the only conceivable legitimate interest in possession of a body was in arranging for decent disposal, following, if necessary, some form of forensic investigation, it was understandable that the rights and obligations of interested parties could be loosely defined. However the increase in the benefits that can be obtained from organs and tissues of the dead, and the increased demand for recognition of a wide variety of religious and other beliefs, have combined to result in a requirement for a much more detailed definition of the rights and obligations associated with dead bodies. The law is in a state of development in this regard.


  • A The definition of ‘death’ 15.1
  • B The diagnosis of death  15.13
  • Brain stem death  15.14
  • Death following cessation of cardio-respiratory function 15.15
  • Certification 15.18
  • The ‘process of dying’ 15.19
  • C After death  15.27
  • D Application of ‘work and skill’ exception  15.30
  • E Right of possession and disposal  15.36
  • F The use and storage of human bodies and tissues  15.39
  • G Conclusion 15.40
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