As we all know, the heart is the organ which supplies the body's tissues with blood. For a long time, the definition of death as the arrest of heart action and irreversible breakdown of respiration was considered a fact that did not require legal definition. With the advances in medical technology in the 20th century, however, the use of drugs and machines such as respirators enabled doctors to restore vital functions within minutes after they had stopped and, sometimes, to maintain them indefinitely. As a result, many medical authorities came to define death as the cessation of cerebral function (brain waves) as well as of respiratory and circulatory function.
Many hospitals today have adopted a definition of death that equates it with irreversible coma. According to this definition, a physician may assume that a person's brain is dead if it reads a flat electroencepholograph reading. The hospital then would consider that it could withdraw supportive medical measures on the assumption that nothing more could be done for the patient and the extraordinary measures are no longer required for the support of heart function and breathing. Such decisions, however, can raise importants questions of medical ethics.
Legal as well as ethical consideration may also be involved in such matters. By the late 1980s, in the USA most states had legally declared brain death to be an essential part of the definition of death. The need for this move had become evident with the growth of organ transplant operations, because organs must be removed as quickly as possible from a dead person before they begin to deteriorate.. Difficult legal questions were also created by those situations in which modern technology made possible the maintenance of life in otherwise irreversibly comatose or terminally ill patients.
As a result, various groups and individuals have for a number of years been pressing for the "legal right to die", declaring that extraordinary life-sustaining treatments only prolong suffering. They have sought to establish this right, in particular by means of so-called "living wills" that confer authority for withdrawal of such treatments upon family members, friends or legal figures. Many countries have recognised the legality of "living wills", but the question of euthanasia that they involve - that is the induction of gentle death by passive means - continues to be the centre of numerous ethical and legal controversies.
As far as I am concerned, I strongly believe that euthanasia is a crime which equals premeditated murder. Suffering is part of our lives and very often the advances in medicine successfully put an end to it. Hope dies last.
*** Many thanks to my friend Andreas for providing the medical info on euthanasia.