Journalists still report that Marlise Munoz had been on “life support.” She had been attached to a machine that pumped oxygen into her blood and to another one that pumped in nutrients. But she had not been on life support. She was, tragically, dead and no amount of sophisticated technology can “keep someone alive” who is already dead. The journalists quote the woman’s husband as saying his wife had told him she “would not want to be kept alive under such circumstances.” I don’t know what Mr. Munoz, who is an emergency medical technician, actually told reporters. His wife might have said she wouldn’t want machines to sustain her life if she were in a vegetative state. She might have said that if she died, she would not want her organs used or that she would want to be buried promptly. But “keeping her alive” when she was dead was not an option.
Turning to the fetus—the only participant in this drama who was arguably being “kept alive” by machines—the newspapers quote one lawyer as saying “there is an infant, and a dead person serving as a dysfunctional incubator.” I don’t know what the lawyer actually said or what her role was--and she is right that the dead body of Mrs. Munoz was being used as an incubator--but she is not right that “there is an infant.” There was a fetus (“the young of a mammal in the womb”), not an infant (a baby in its first year of life after birth).
All this confusion raises a novel and important issue for older people who are interested in advance care planning—what are the rights of the dead? Most of advance care planning is about living—how a person wishes to be cared for as the end of life approaches. But people also have the option to specify how they want their body to be handled after death occurs. A dead body is not a person; it does not have rights in the way that (living) people do. However, respect for autonomy means a living person has the right to determine what will be done with his or her dead body after death.
So here is what you can say about care-after-death. You can say whether you want to donate your organs after death. Transplanted kidneys, livers, corneas, and other body parts can prolong life or improve the quality of life and there are not nearly as many organs available for transplant as there are people who could benefit from them. You can indicate whether you want an autopsy. Such post-mortem medical examinations can provide information about the cause of death that may be valuable to family members who want to know their risks and are often useful to physicians to improve their skills. And you can say whether your dead body should be disposed of by burial, cremation, or donation to a medical school. Cadavers continue to be important to first year medical students who are learning anatomy.
There are of course limits to what a person can demand about how his or her dead body will be handled. If foul play is suspected, the state can demand an autopsy without requiring consent. If the request for care after death poses a risk to public health—through improperly disposing of the corpse, for example, the government can intervene. But in general, you can decide. Along with designating a health care proxy (someone to make decisions on your behalf about medical care if you are unable to do so), and along with writing out a living will (stating what you would or would not want in various circumstances), you can consider saying what you want after life.