Debating the wisdom of organ transplantation has finally become a matter of public discussion. The fact that it has taken forty years to get to this point is disturbing. The delay is, if nothing else, a testimony to the slithery nature of views propounded by organ donation proponents. But we are finally having honest discussion in the public square.
In Canada “a group of ICU doctors is calling for a moratorium on harvesting transplant organs from people whose hearts have stopped but are not yet brain dead, reviving controversy around a process that is becoming increasingly important to the transplant system.”
However there are those who argue that brain death itself is not a genuine definition of death. Deborah Sturm, R.N., writes,
So when is a person actually dead? Perhaps a better question is, “When does the soul leave the body?” Are we to believe that when a person is diagnosed as “brain dead,” yet they have other signs of life such as a heartbeat and a blood pressure, that they are dead? And when a “brain dead” woman is able to nourish her unborn child and bring him to full term to be delivered, is she to be considered, perhaps, soulless?
As doctors, scientists, and ethicists explore these questions, one thing remains certain: A person’s death is not to be hastened for any reason, not even to benefit the life of another. Yet it seems, unfortunately, that this is occurring more frequently in our country and around the world, owing to an increasingly dominant secular ethics in which the ends justify the means. Furthermore, many secular ethicists believe that morality must change as technology evolves.
The secular argument which is hinged on a floating scale of values devoid of moral consistency is exactly where the problem exists. There is no denying the fact that disregard for the integrity of the human person is directly associated with attitudes toward the ill and dying that lead to a form of presumption regarding the “value” of life that is not good news for vulnerable patients and their families. If the organs are healthy, then any of a number of definitions can suggest that the patient is “dead” enough to take those organs.
In a report entitled “A Vexing Problem,” Daniel Allott examines the challenges inherent in discussing organ donation to which I have referred. Exposing the problematic language that exists in the ethics-free secular world of medical bioethics, Allott writes,
The most troubling and longstanding problem raised by organ transplantation has involved altering the very definition of death, since to transplant a vital organ, the donor’s organs must still be alive. For centuries, prolonged absence of heartbeat and respiration were the criteria for certifying death. In 1968, however, a special committee at Harvard Medical School proposed a definition of death as “brain death” that became widely accepted. Today, determination of “brain death” is used in all 50 states to pronounce patients dead. In brain death donations, the donor is kept on a ventilator to keep blood flowing to organs until they can be removed.
But less than one percent of all deaths involve brain deaths, which has led to further alterations in the definition of death to include “cardiac death.” Because of increasing demand for organ transplants, the federal government has over the past decade challenged medical centers to find novel ways to increase organ transplantation from patients whose hearts have stopped beating but who have not been declared brain dead.
It is this “novelty” that is both frightening and threatening to the very integrity of the medical profession itself.
But we need not fear the dreaded robbery of an organ which renders the “donor” dead. Allott reports on the burgeoning area of regenerative medicine and states,“Regenerative medicine, which uses stem cell therapies to create and repair damaged tissue and organs, holds the most promise in addressing the organ shortage.” He goes on to write,
The real progress has been seen in therapies derived from adult stem cell research. For one thing, Prentice [a leading expert on stem cell research] explained, “repairing the existing, damaged organ in the body replaces the need to do a whole-organ transplant.” Several thousand heart patients have been treated with adult stem cells and subsequently taken off transplant waiting lists.
A study released last December in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology described how stem cells from bone marrow were used to help repair heart damage. And at the annual World Congress on Anti-Aging Medicine & Regenerative Biomedical Technologies last December, Zannos Grekos, MD, director of Cardiac and Vascular Disease for Regenocyte Therapeutic, showed the successful engraftment of stem cells into damaged organs and subsequent regeneration of tissue.
Allott concludes with this optimistic statement, “It would appear that the solutions consistent with the Catholic understanding of the human person are also the ones that show the most promise.”
If the discussion regarding the dangers of current organ excision practices had not finally come to center stage, perhaps this good news would have been buried. But for those of us concerned about the integrity of the human person, there is a silver lining on the very dark and deadly organ transplant cloud.
May the ethical relativism of the past dim as the morally sound adult stem cell solutions light the way to respect for the dignity of the human being.