Vatican to "Debate" Organ Transplantation? Brain Death?

September 9, 2008 09:00 AM
It has come as a surprise to some that the Pontifical Academy for Life is co-hosting a November 2008 conference with the theme "A Gift for Life." I have known that the conference has been on the drawing board for some months now. This past June, when concerns were first expressed to me, I, as an Academy member, joined with Professor Joseph Seifert to ask the Academy's leadership to reconsider the topic of the conference and perhaps postpone it until Academy members could discuss concerns privately in a closed-door meeting.
Professor Seifert has written and spoken of his concerns about the validity of the "brain death" criterion for many years. In a 1998 Catholic World Report article, we read the following:
It is often said that in the brain-dead patient, certain organs remain alive, although the brain – and thus the patient himself – is dead. On the contrary, argues Seifert:
We have to consider that the human life is not like a tree life. Each twig and each little part of the tree has some life; it's a living cell, and the life of the whole organism is in a certain way like the integrated totality of life processes in the different parts of the tree. But when it comes to persons, you have the source of the real personal life, the human soul, which is indivisible – it cannot be divided into many parts. Therefore the new question is whether functions of the brain are the only thing that keep body and soul together, that bind the soul to the body, or that are the source of the incarnated presence of the soul. That, I think, is extremely doubtful. . . . The mystery of how body and soul are united exceeds just brain function. It's not just an isolated presence in a single organ.
More recently, Professor Seifert was quoted by John Shea, M.D. in an article  that addresses the "inconvenient truth" about brain death: what it is and what it is not. It is clear, at least to some, that "brain death" is not death. More than a few medical experts agree. In the Shea article, Professor Seifert is quoted as follows: "Medical ethicists should invoke the traditional, moral teaching of the Catholic Church that 'even if a small, reasonable doubt exists that our acts kill a living human person, we must abstain from them.'"

Professor Seifert is not the only one to have expressed serious reservations on this subject. One of my heroes, Paul Byrne, M.D., has been exposing the "brain death" fallacy for years, and has been joined by many prestigious individuals in the Catholic community, including the bishop of Lincoln, Nebraska, Fabian Bruskewitz, and the bishop of Baker, Oregon, Robert Vasa.The Catholic World News article "Are organ transplants ever morally licit" predates this recent controversy by several years, but I am getting the impression that nobody is really paying attention to the crux of the problem. These heroic men are like voices crying in the wilderness, outside of the gates guarded by those who pander to the organ procurement industry's financial interests.

Just yesterday, Dr. Byrne wrote "The Demise of Brain Death,"  in which he repeated the grave concerns that many of us have had for many years. In his column, Dr. Byrne stated,
"Brain death" never was, and never will be true death. This has been known by neurologists and organ transplanters since the beginning of the multi-billion industry. So if a declaration of "brain death" is not true death, but organs are taken legally in accord with "accepted medical standards," why not continue to make "acceptable" less stringent criteria? In the 10 years after the ad hoc committee conjured up the Harvard Criteria, 30 more sets were reported by 1978. Every set became less stringent. Less strict sets were reported until eventually there is a criterion that does not fulfill any of the "brain death" criteria? This is known as donation by cardiac death (DCD). Organs are obtained for transplantation by first getting a DNR order, then taking the patient off life support and wait until the patient is without a pulse (NOT WITHOUT A HEART BEAT!). In the past the waiting time was 10 minutes, then shortened to 5 minutes, then 4, then 2 and now in the NEJM (8-14-08) the waiting time is only 1.25 minutes until they cut out the baby's heart. How shameful can it get! Shame on the medical field for knowing and not protecting these patients! Shame on the transplantation organizations for valuing money over an innocent injured person's life! Shame on the US government, other governments, and clergy for allowing and even encouraging extracting vital organs for transplantation and research! When will doctors informed of the truth stand for life instead of being political creeps?

So the real question is this: Why has the Pontifical Academy for Life joined forces with the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and the Italian National Transplant Centre, to host a conference, which, according to the program, will address organ donations and will clearly include a discussion of brain death while neglecting to include the insights and experiences of men like Dr. Paul Byrne, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and Professor Joseph Seifert, among others?
Perhaps is not far off the mark when it reports,
The internal disagreements go beyond the Pontifical Academy for Life, into the Pontifical Academy for Sciences, which had a conference on the matter in 2005 where a majority of the participants were opposed to 'brain death' as a true definition of death. However, findings of that 2005 conference were suppressed and another conference in the same name was convened the following year with most of those opposed to the notion of brain death as true death uninvited. Instead the 2006 conference findings were published, stating that brain death is recognized as "the true criterion for death." The findings of the 2005 conference were eventually published privately.

Oh yes, and then there is the report from Rome, courtesy of an Italian online news source, which has also raised questions, based on the rumblings of some concerned Catholics. In this article, we read,
Beneath the surface, however, doubts are growing in the Church. From Pius XII on, the pronouncements of the hierarchy on this question have been less clear-cut than they appear. This "ambiguity" of the Church is illustrated in an entire chapter of a book published recently in Italy: "Brain death and organ transplant. A question of legal ethics," published by Morcelliana in Brescia.The author is Paolo Becchi, professor of the philosophy of law at the universities of Genoa and Luzern, and a pupil of a Jewish thinker who dedicated concerned reflections to the question of the end of life, Hans Jonas. According to Jonas, the new definition of death established by the Harvard report was not motivated by any real scientific advancement, but rather by interests, by the need for organs for transplants.
Such statements are part of the reason why some of us have asked for a private meeting of Academy members only, but to no avail.

The Vatican conference is going to be held, and the debate is going to continue because the official magisterium of the Catholic Church has not spoken definitively on the particular question of "brain death." However, the Catechism of the Catholic Church (Section 2296) states the following on the question of organ donation:
Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons. (emphasis added)

It is the final sentence that should give pause to all those who believe that they can obfuscate the realities surrounding brain death, ignore the pandering to organ transplant special interests and continue to insist that brain death is death. Why? Because, as Professor Seifert said, "Even if a small, reasonable doubt exists that our acts kill a living human person, we must abstain from them."

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