Bring Out Yer Dead!

An article in The Economist describes the worries of bioethicists about what we might call the problem of deadly demarcation: the fact that vicissitudes in medical definitions of death appear to be subject to the growing trend of organ harvesting. In 1968 a committee at the Harvard Medical School recommended extinction of brain activity as the dividing line between living and dead, and the Vatican had no objections to the definition itself, asking only that there be moral certainty about when the definition fit in a particular case before life support was withdrawn. Prior to this time, complete cardiac arrest had been the standard criterion for death, but the argument was that, since the brain is the center of the personality it is a better indicator of, well, whether the person is really still there or not. This new definition was congenial to the promoters of organ donation, since in many cases internal organs are in better shape at the time of brain death than they would be if doctors waited until permanent cardiac arrest. Experts are now divided, however, over whether this definition really captures the proper moment, the dividing line between when one is to treat a particular body as  belonging to a person or as being merely a corpse.

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Looking for God in All the Wrong Places

In the spring of 1974 I was in a tenth grade chemistry class that involved a little more math than I was comfortable with (i.e., an amount greater than zero). As I was browsing in the bookstore of the local university one day I saw that they had hand-held calculators for sale, and I decided that I had to have one for that chemistry class. Now, this was 1974, remember, and calculators then were not very advanced. The one that I wanted, manufactured by Texas Instruments, could do the basic arithmetic functions, plus square root, percentage, and–the feature that, for some odd reason, I was most excited by–it had a separate key for the value pi. That was all the thing could do, and the price tag was $124, a hefty sum even now but in 1974 dollars that was some real dough we were talking about.

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