Bring Out Your (Sort-of, Mostly, All) Dead: Should Those Dead by Neurological Criteria Be Research Subjects?

Craig M. Klugman

 

In the fall of 2021 a news story reported of a successful experimental xenotransplant of a genetically engineered pig kidney in to the circulatory system of a research subject who was dead by neurological criteria. Although not a first of its kind, this case raises the issue of the ethics of research on those declared brain dead. Such possibilities have been discussed in the published literature since 1974, when Willard Gaylin expressed concern over human dignity when he imagined hospital wards filled with “neomorts” used for education, teaching, research, and manufacturing. In this essay, the author explores the nuances of whether such subjects are considered alive, dead, or something in between. Notions of consent/permission and risk/benefit are determined by this categorization. After discussing the 2005 Consensus Panel Guidelines on Research with the Recently Dead, the essay concludes with the need for a liminal state between living and dead that respects human dignity but also recognizes the utilitarian value of such experiments to protect fully alive humans. Having not just guidelines but oversight structures such as the University of Pittsburgh’s Committee for Oversight of Research Involving the Dead (CORID) and regulations are necessary if such work is to become more common.

 

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