Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics

, Volume 34, Issue 2, pp 147–160 | Cite as

Not quite dead: why Egyptian doctors refuse the diagnosis of death by neurological criteria

  • Sherine Hamdy


Drawing on two years of ethnographic fieldwork in Egypt focused on organ transplantation, this paper examines the ways in which the “scientific” criteria of determining death in terms of brain function are contested by Egyptian doctors. Whereas in North American medical practice, the death of the “person” is associated with the cessation of brain function, in Egypt, any sign of biological life is evidence of the persistence, even if fleeting, of the soul. I argue that this difference does not exemplify an irresolvable culture clash but points to an unsettling aspect of cadaveric organ procurement that has emerged wherever organ transplantation is practiced. Further, I argue that a misdiagnosis of the problem, as one about “religious extremism” or a “civilizational clash,” has obfuscated unresolved concerns about fairness, access, and justice within Egyptian medical spheres. This misdiagnosis has led to the suspension of a cadaveric procurement program for over 30 years, despite Egypt’s pioneering efforts in kidney transplantation.


Brain death Organ transplantation Cadaveric procurement Egypt Islam Religious ethics 



The author gratefully acknowledges the Wolfenson Family Membership of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, NJ, for allowing me the time and space to write this article.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyBrown UniversityProvidenceUSA

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