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The Pro-Life Debate Behind the Sad Case of Jahi McMath

The much-publicized story of a 13-year-old girl who went into the hospital for surgery in early December and suffered cardiac arrest leading to catastrophic ‘whole-brain death’ has taken another turn.  Late Sunday night, Jahi was released into the care of her mother.

David Durand of the Children’s Hospital of Oakland explained the child, who was legally declared dead, was actually released to the coroner while still under the support of the ventilator. The coroner then released her into the care of her mother.

The Alameda County coroner’s office also issued a death certificate for the little girl, but the attorney for the family, Christopher Dolan,  said they do not have a copy.

“They may have issued one but we don’t have it. We don’t think she’s dead,” Dolan said. “We got all the necessary legal paperwork in order to get Jahi out of there.”

The battle for Jahi began after the hospital sought to end life support for the girl, who had entered the hospital for a routine surgery when tragedy struck.

Nailah Winkfield, mother of Jahi, refused to let her child go.

“I can touch her, she is warm and soft. She is not cold and stiff like death,” the anguished mother told Dolan. “She smells good and when I rub her feet she pulls away. I know my daughter, she’s not dead. She needs time, I need time. She is my baby, you can’t take her.”

With the advice of  Dolan, Jahi’s family took the case to court.  At the request of the judge, the diagnosis of whole brain death made by the hospital was re-confirmed by an independent physician and in court documents Dr. Heidi Flori graphically described how Jahi’s body had begun to shut down and could not be saved.  Still, Jahi’s family and their attorney insisted their little girl may still recover.

Backed by pro-life groups, Life Legal Defense Fund and Terry Schiavo Life and Hope Foundation, which called the case, “the latest example of government and hospital boards taking private medical decisions away from families,” the legal fight over Jahi has waged on.

Yet not even all pro-life groups agree this child, who unlike the Schiavo case has no brain function at all, should be the poster child for next pro-life campaign.

“Under the law, brain-dead is ‘dead’ when it connotes death by neurological criteria,” Wesley J. Smith, a pro-life bioethicist wrote. “In such circumstances, if accurately determined, there is no legal right to continue life support of what is, essentially, a cadaver.”

Rev. Michael P. Orsi agreed that Jahi’s case has left little ambiguity. “This in no way can be construed as a “right-to-life case” since the medical and legal community both accept Jahi’s condition as irreversible — not comatose, but dead, ”he wrote. “To hold out for a miracle is to tempt God. It will also lead to expending, unnecessarily, scarce health care dollars, which in itself would be immoral.”

For Jahi’s family, however, bolstered by the support and promises of their attorney Dolan and pro-life groups, hope remains.  “I will always fight for Jahi until she is ready to go, her own self,” Winkfield said of her child. “I see her getting better.”

Photo Credit: Screenshot/CBS broadcast

About the author

Tamar is a New York based freelance writer and photographer whose work has appeared in over 15 publications. You can catch her work regularly on Issue Hawk, Latest, Jspace, and MediaGlobal.

  • Elizabeth

    This is a sad situation for the family which is having difficulty accepting their child’s death. Their choice to attempt to keep her on some sort of life support will probably end when her body begins to deteriorate or the money runs out for the procedures. If her organs were going to be used to help someone else, there might be a rationale for prolonging her burial but sadly, that does not seem to be the case. One hopes the family will eventually accept the situation but we are sympathetic with their sadness.

  • LizDavies

    A Google search suggests that Attorney Dolan is a longstanding “pro-life” (enforced childbirth) advocate.

    I suspect he either came up on his own with the idea of using this family’s tragedy for the “pro-life” agenda or was put onto it by some “pro-lifers” who hope they can further their agenda by using the girl as a kind of poster child for the notion that not only are newly fertilized eggs already fully-fledged people, but so are brain-dead children.

    They don’t care how cruelly they extend the family’s suffering.