Refinements in Criteria for the Determination of Death

A Report by the Task Force on Death and Dying of the Institute of Society, Ethics, and the Life Sciences, Journal of the American Medical Association 221:48‑53, 1972.


The growing powers of medicine to combat disease and to prolong life have brought longer, healthier lives to many people. They have also brought new and difficult problems, including some which are not only medical but also fundamentally moral and political. An important example is the problem of determining whether and when a person has died—a determination that is sometimes made difficult as a direct result of new technological powers to sustain the signs of life in the severely ill and injured.

Death was (and in the vast majority of cases still is) a phenomenon known to the ordinary observer through visible and palpable manifestations, such as the cessation of respiration and heartbeat. However, in a small but growing number of cases, technological intervention has rendered insufficient these traditional signs as signs of continuing life.