The dead donor rule: effect on the virtuous practice of medicine

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The President's Council on Bioethics in 2008 reaffirmed the necessity of the dead donor rule and the legitimacy of the current criteria for diagnosing both neurological and cardiac death. In spite of this report, many have continued to express concerns about the ethics of donation after circulatory death, the validity of determining death using neurological criteria and the necessity for maintaining the dead donor rule for organ donation. I analysed the dead donor rule for its effect on the virtuous practice of medicine by physicians caring for potential organ donors.


The dead donor rule consistently impedes physicians in fulfilling their primary duty to act for the good of their prospective donor patients. This compromises the virtue of fidelity. It also weakens many other virtues necessary for physicians to provide excellent end-of-life care.


The dead donor rule, while ethically powerful in theory, loses its force during translation to the bedside. This is so because the rule mandates simultaneous life and death within the same body for organ donation, a biological status that is inherently contradictory. The rule should be rejected as an ethical norm governing vital organ transplantation at the end of life. Its elimination will strengthen the doctor–patient relationship and foster trustworthiness in organ procurement.

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