It is a question the McMath family is asking every night– why Jahi? On December 18, 2013, 13 year old Jahi McMath underwent what should have been a routine surgical procedure for sleep apnea, but after several complications it left her legally brain dead. Currently, the McMath family is holding on to a temporary restraining order to keep Jahi on life support; however, the hospital intends to immediately remove Jahi from life support. It is a heartbreaking case that is gaining national attention everywhere, and amid the current legal battle, lawmakers around the nation are reevaluating this important legal question– at what point is a person actually dead?
In Michigan, an individual is determined dead, under MCL 333.1033, if their heart, breathing, or entire brain function has irreversibly stopped before applying artificial support. This law was created in response to the most recent right-to-die case in Terri Schiavo, which started in 1990 and ended in 2005. In the Schiavo case, Terri suffered a heart attack and sustained extreme brain damage. As a result, Terri remained in a persistent vegetative state, which made her dependent on a feeding tube. With respect to the legal battles, Terri’s husband wanted to remove the feeding tube because “she was unable to communicate or interact purposefully.” On the other hand, Terri’s parents relied on CT scans that demonstrated minor brain activity that placed her in a “minimal conscious state.” After an intense legal battle that lasted fifteen years, with over hundreds of motions argued, numerous appeals, and four writs denied by the Supreme Court, the final say on Terri’s life rested on six hours of video that demonstrated to the court that Terri had no cognitive function, and thus, deceased, per Florida’s “determined dead” statute.
In the present case, the hospital is refusing to provide any further medical procedures to Jahi because the hospital believes she is “determined dead” per California law. Moreover, the hospital argues that it is unethical to perform medical procedures like inserting breathing and feeding tubes into dead person’s body. On the contrary, the court analyzed Jahi’s condition similar to Terri Schiavo by looking at unassisted heart, brain, and breathing functions. The court found that because Jahi has a faint heartbeat, Jahi cannot be deemed “dead” per California law. Although the end result of this case will be tragic, it may perhaps behoove Michigan lawmakers to explore the possibility of expanding current right-to-die laws and provide more clarity on the duties hospitals owe to their patients in various medical conditions.
By: Fahd Haque, Law Clerk for Moss & Colella, P.C. If you have any questions, please email Fahd Haque at FHaque@mosscolella.com