Soylently Speaking!

Wondering what the heck the title means? It means you’re not an old sci-fi fan like me, and neither are your social media friends.

Soylent Green was a 1973 sci-fi thriller starring Charleton Heston. It became a popular meme and joke reference recently, as the story was set almost 50 years later, in 2022.

However, this piece has little to do with the movie’s setting. Rather, the basic premise of the film and the tragic death of the actress Anne Heche inspired this piece as well as my last post, Speaking of Drivel. If you’re unfamiliar with the movie and have not clicked on the link above, here is why it triggered my writer persona.

Soylent Green is the story of a society that devolved into what one might call modern-day cannibalism. Due to the mismanagement of the world and its resources, society became dependent on recycled humans for packaged foodstuff labeled Soylent Green.

While we have not fallen to that level of desperation, we may be much closer to the age depicted in the movie than anyone would like to believe. No! We do not take the old, the lame, and ne’re-do-wells and turn them into the foodstuff which sustains society. On the other hand, there may be concerns in other areas of our culture.

If you did not pay attention to the death of Ms. Heche, you likely do not know there was a bit of confusion surrounding her death. It was not the confusion one might expect. The initial cause of death was clear, and it was not suicide or homicide. The confusion concerned when she truly died.

Under California law, she was ruled “dead” on Friday. Medically, in the minds of many, she was not deceased until Sunday. The definition of brain death is the reason for this confusion, which has existed for many years.

In 2016, a doctor published an excellent article on the problems related to the rather malleable nature of the concept of brain death. This article, Brain Death and True Patient Care, clearly lays out the concerns surrounding situations such as Ms. Heche’s death. Of course, it is quite long and written for academe, not normal folks, but there is a “Layperson Summary.” To help things along, I have summarized the summary to a degree below.

The problem is simple. The definition of death could be manipulated to assist in harvesting organs for transplant. No! No one is saying that people are intentionally being allowed to die to provide such organs. The concern is that, given human nature, it might be possible that some are putting a thumb on the scale when deciding if there is any chance the donor might recover.

If something like that is happening, the reason would be the desire to provide potentially life-saving viable donor organs to recipients. That means the question becomes simple. Are doctors encouraged to overlook the possibility that a legally “brain-dead” person might recover?1

One would hope not. Still, as the article referenced above argues, the definition of death has been altered over time in ways that make it easier to prioritize the recipient’s life over the donor’s.

1 While there has been some progress since the 2016 article, similar concerns were expressed in other professional or medical articles since then, and a 2020 article I reviewed indicated efforts to clarify this point may not be answered completely. However, one online journal made an intriguing point, “Patients who are brain dead, however, are considered to have a complete loss of brain function, and there is no way to overturn this – yet.”

© 2022

About S. Eric Jackson

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