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Midday on Ethics with Dr. Jeffrey Kahn: What Is Death?

Johns Hopkins University

It’s another edition of Midday on Ethics, in which we explore some ethical questions pulled straight from the headlines. Guiding us in that exploration is Dr. Jeffrey Kahn, the Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. He joins Tom in Studio A from time to time to help us examine how ethicists are framing these very complex questions.

We begin with the story of Jahi McMath, a 13-year -old girl in California who was declared dead in late 2013, after a routine surgery went wrong. Then, last month, 4½ years later, she was declared dead, again, in New Jersey. It’s a tragic story that raises issues about end of life that has pitted the medical profession against people with deeply held religious beliefs. Just like there is no consensus on when life begins; there is also a lack of agreement about when life ends. How do we define death? And who gets to define it?

Another ethical conundrum Tom and Dr. Kahn discuss today involves infertile couples who undergo in vitro fertilization, or IVF treatment, in which a woman's harvested egg is fertilized with her husband's sperm in a laboratory medium, and then re-implanted in her uterus for normal gestation.  IVF couples sometimes produce a surplus of embryos, which are saved for possible future use in hopes of achieving pregnancy. But what if those couples split up?  The legal consensus has been that the embryos cannot be used unless both people agree, on the theory that nobody can be forced to be a parent. A new law in Arizona turns that consensus on its head.

Host, Midday (M-F 12:00-1:00)