Sometimes, the line between life and death can become quite blurry and subjective. The family of Jahi McMath has been affected by this subjectivity in a devastating way. Last December, the teenage girl was declared brain-dead after a surgery to treat her sleep apnea failed and resulted in cardiac arrest. The doctors at UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital in California, after failing to detect neurological activity, decided to issue McMath’s death certificate. Though the girl qualified as dead in the legal sense, which would entail the ceasing of life support, her family fought back. After a long battle, McMath’s mother, Nailah Winkfield, was granted legal permission to remove and transfer her child from the California hospital with the condition to assume responsibility of the situation herself. Winkfield claims that since her daughter’s heart is still beating, she is not dead, regardless of the life support systems that maintain her vital bodily functions.

 

Recent MRI scans may have detected neurological activity in Jahi McMath.

Recent MRI scans may have detected neurological activity in Jahi McMath.

More recently, Winkfield has released videos of McMath responding to requests to move her arm and leg. Though she’s currently in a New Jersey hospital, the girl’s family is hopeful that the videos will result in the reversal of McMath’s death certificate, which would allow them to return to California to continue treatment under state funding. Christopher Dolan, the attorney fighting on behalf of McMath’s family, also claims that recent MRI scans have detected neurological activity in McMath.

 

Regardless of the outcome, the case’s existence alone serves testament to the arbitrary nature of death. It’s not always as simple as scanning the brain or detecting a pulse. In fact, a recent study from the University of Cambridge has challenged our traditional understanding of death by managing to detect consciousness in vegetative patients. By applying high-density electroencephalographs and “graph theory,” scientists working on the study claim to have learned how to identify when these patients are aware of their environments. But even if their results can prove a patient’s awareness, and even if McMath can nudge her foot on command, can awareness or responsiveness alone be enough to justify keeping a vegetative patient on life support? Such questions will be vital for McMath’s family in the coming months.

 

What do you think about Jahi McMath’s case? Do you think that a vegetative patient’s awareness implies life? Let me know in the comments or on Twitter @ryanlawlessness