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Life of a Law Student, University of Houston Law Center

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Life and Death in the Law About to Change?

By: Luke Gilman | Other Posts by
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Charlie Rose had a really interesting interview last week with Nicholas Schiff and Henning Voss of the Weill Cornell Medical College in New York, and Joseph Giacino of the JFK Johnson Rehabilitation Institute in New Jersey. The discussion centered on the case of Terry Wallis who had been in a coma for over 20 years, and who was considered to be in a permanent vegetative state, emerged lucid and talking. All of this of course, has to be viewed in light of the Terry Shiavo case.

This was the topic of an interesting discussion of this semester in Crim Law, but the discussion focused more on the classification change in the law from death as the cessation of breathing and the stopping of the heart, to the more modern conception of brain-death. At this point it seems we’re poised for another, perhaps more legally problematic transition to a more nuanced understanding of when the brain has ‘died’.

The transition is potentially problematic because while the skills necessary to tell if someone is breathing or not are rudimentary, the skills to determine brain activity are less so, and the skills to determine the difference between cases like Wallis and Schiavo are a distinct specialty within that. Most hospitals, it seems, are not equipped to tell the difference.

  • Charlie Rose Interview: Conversation on brain regeneration
  • New Scientist: Not brain-dead but ripe for transplant
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