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2 cases highlight difficulty in defining what 'death' is

Emotions ride high when someone dies. When unforeseen circumstances or events, such as medical error, result in what may be a wrongful death, the grief that loved ones may feel may be magnified.

It's understandable in such instances for those who are grieving to want the full measure of justice that may be available. Knowing what that measure is can be difficult, however. The courts are where such matters wind up going in a country like ours that operates under the rule of law.

But the laws can vary, especially state to state. That creates situations that demand the touch of experienced legal counsel. And as a couple of cases that have been in the news recently show, the definition and dispensation of justice can vary significantly.

On one end of what might be considered the spectrum of debate is the case of a pregnant Texas woman. The 33-year-old has been on life support since late November after suffering an apparent pulmonary embolism.

Her husband and parents says she is brain dead and they have been fighting in court to have her taken off life support devices. The hospital, however, describes her as being in serious condition in intensive care. The fetus remains viable, officials say, and Texas law requires that the woman be kept on life support until the child can be delivered.

Today, the husband filed suit seeking to have life support ended. A decision is pending.

On what would seem to be the opposite end of the scale is the case of a 13-year-old California girl. She is on life support, including the use of breathing and feeding tubes. That's despite the hospital's determination that she is brain dead after apparently suffering complications after a tonsillectomy.

Refusing to accept the declaration, and amid questions about what might have gone wrong during the procedure, the girl's family has waged a legal fight to keep her on life support and recently succeeded in getting her moved to another care facility.

Ethicists say both cases present serious questions and may reflect that there is a great disparity in how the general public understands medical nuances associated with cases in which little or no brain activity is present in a patient.

As we've seen, lacking clarity, issues like this tend to need to be resolved in court.

Source: USA Today, "Ethicists criticize treatment of teen, Texas patient," Liz Szabo, Jan. 10, 2014
Source: Star-Telegram, "Muñoz family sues to remove life support," Max B. Baker, Jan. 14, 2014

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Brian Jensen

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