KANSAS CITY, January 15, 2014 ( – “Sometimes things are not as they seem.” That was the title given to a recent opinion piece by Bishop Robert Finn of Kansas City, who urged readers of The Catholic Key diocesan newspaper to “work hard and speak out clearly for the protection of human life at all its moments” in reaction to the story of Jahi McMath, a 13-year-old Oakland, California girl who was declared “legally dead” by hospital and government officials even as she remained on a respirator with her heart beating on its own.

“[S]ometimes things are not as they seem, and Dr. [Paul] Byrne, who went to Oakland a few days after Christmas, doesn’t believe Jahi is dead,” wrote Bishop Finn. “What moved me most was something I had not yet read in any media accounts: He told me that Jahi was not totally unresponsive – but rather, when touched or talked to by family members, she moves her arms and/or legs. I must say that this is not what I imagined in the case of someone who is dead.”

McMath was declared “legally dead” Dec. 12 by Oakland Children’s Hospital and the Alameda County Coroner after suffering unexpected complications from a tonsillectomy and adenoidectomy which led to cardiac arrest. Afterward, her family fought a nearly month-long legal battle with the hospital to keep her on life support, ultimately settling with the hospital to secure her release to a Catholic care facility where she is now receiving treatment.


McMath’s heartbreaking case – along with the case of Marlise Munoz, a pregnant woman being kept on a ventilator against her husband’s wishes because of a Texas state law barring hospitals from removing life support from a woman who is pregnant before her baby is viable for delivery – has spurred national debate over how death is defined in the United States, and whether family members or doctors should be the ultimate arbiters of when it is time to “let go” of a neurologically devastated patient.

While all 50 states have passed laws defining “brain death” as the legal endpoint of life, the criteria for declaring a patient brain dead vary from state to state. What passes for brain death in California may not qualify as death in another state, a discrepancy that has led critics of the “brain death” movement to accuse doctors of playing God – declaring living patients “legally dead” so that their healthy organs can be harvested, or worse yet, in order to limit hospital liability in cases like Jahi’s, where a routine procedure goes horribly wrong.

Bishop Finn told that he felt the need to speak out on Jahi’s behalf after becoming personally involved in the case. “I got involved at first only because I received a call from the daughter of Dr. Paul Byrne, requesting assistance in locating a doctor in California,” the bishop explained. “I made a number of calls to try to locate this support. As I became involved, I also saw an irony in this case: that the family wished to assist their child, and the hospital – according to Dr. Byrne – was putting up road blocks.”

Bishop Finn said, “In the Terry Schiavo tragedy, different family members (husband versus parents and siblings) were warring over who had control in the ultimate decisions. In this circumstance in the life of Jahi, all the legitimate decision makers for Jahi were unanimous in favor of continuing care. The hospital was opposing the family.”

“My message was that a family, in such instance, has a morally founded right to discontinue such extraordinary care, and also, the family has a morally founded right to continue care for their child.”

In his opinion piece on the subject, Bishop Finn said that while the Catholic Church allows families to withhold “extraordinary means” of care, such as a ventilator, from dying loved ones, “Catholic moral teaching would also support the extraordinary efforts required to keep the child alive, if that was the chosen path.”

Citing the work of Dr. Byrne, a pediatrician and medical school professor who has done extensive research on brain death, especially as it relates to children, the bishop further argued that Jahi’s family is well within their rights to give the girl as much time as they feel is needed to offer her a chance at recovery.

“'Brain death’ is established by a measure of brain activity (or loss of it),” Bishop Finn wrote. “Dr. Byrne would point out that brain waves are a measure of such activity in three parts of the brain: the cerebrum, the cerebellum, and the brain stem. He would hold, and has written in many talks and articles, that measuring activity within the deeper recesses of the brain is not yet possible, and therefore may still exist in a subject. He also believes that children have a higher rate of recoverability from brain injuries. Their brains are more ‘pliable’ and can heal in ways that often surprise the experts.”

Finn added, “The observation of reactions (movement of arms or legs) like those reported to be seen in Jahi, lends credence to the possibility that, though there are no measurable brain waves, brain activity may still exist and life may still be present. Thus seems to be the conviction of the family of Jahi McMath.”

“Pray for Jahi and for this family,” the bishop urged the Catholic faithful. “Pray also that authentic moral principles will be upheld in the midst of a scientific endeavor which is always complicated, but which requires many, many prudential decisions. We must work hard and speak out clearly for the protection of human life at all its moments.”

A call to Bishop Finn’s office seeking further comment for this article was not returned by press time. Jahi McMath remains at an unnamed Catholic care facility, where her attorney said last week she is “doing very well.”