ROME, May 9, 2012 (LifeSiteNews.com) - The controversy surrounding the questionable criterion of ‘brain death’ used to determine when life-support devices are turned off in preparation for organ harvesting was addressed in a May 8 interview with Dr. David Albert Jones on Vatican Radio.
Dr. Jones is the director of the UK-based Anscombe Bioethics Centre, a British Catholic institute that tackles the moral questions arising in clinical practice and biomedical research. The organization hosted an Oxford Research Seminar on May 8 on the topic of “Catholic Perspectives on Organ Transplantation.”
The dubious criterion of ‘brain death,’ invented in 1968 to accommodate the need to acquire vital organs in their “freshest” state from a donor who some argue is still very much alive, made headlines two weeks ago when a young British man revealed to the media that he owed his life to his insistent father who would not allow his son’s organs to be removed from his body, despite assurances from four doctors that his son could not recover from the wounds he had suffered in a car accident.
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Four years ago, Stephen Thorpe was placed in a medically-induced coma following a multi-car pileup.
Even though his heart was still beating, a team of four physicians insisted that Stephen was “brain-dead” following the wreck. Thorpe’s father enlisted the help of a general practitioner and a neurologist, who demonstrated that his son still had brain wave activity. The doctors agreed to bring him out of the coma, and five weeks later Thorpe left the hospital, having almost completely recovered.
Today, the 21-year-old with “brain damage” is studying accounting at a local university. “‘My impression is maybe the hospital weren’t very happy that my father wanted a second opinion,” he told the Mail.
Charles Collins of Vatican Radio said cases like Thorpe’s have raised questions on the morality of harvesting organs from people who have been declared brain-dead.
Dr. Jones told Collins there are many ethical questions that must be answered before we can know if someone is really dead.
“There are a number of concerns, even if you are in favour of organ donation in principle, which the Church is, very strongly, in principle,” Dr. Jones said. “There are various issues around how to do it practice … the ongoing question of how you determine whether someone has died.”
“Most donation after death in the whole of the western world happens when the heart is still beating, the so-called beating heart cadavers,” Dr. Jones explained, “so it is very important for people, that this body that doesn’t look like a typical dead body, to be sure it really is dead. Because if it isn’t dead, and you take the organs out, then you might be killing someone.”
Dr. Jones pointed out that it is not just brain-death which is an ethical concern, but that there are also ethical issues surrounding organ donation from those whose heart has stopped beating - circulatory death.
“The issue which surrounds circulatory death is mainly how long the heart has stopped before you take the organs out because … you need to take the organs as soon as possible so that they are usable,” he said. “Even though it is true that the heart has stopped, it isn’t absolutely clear that it couldn’t be started again.”
Listen to the full Vatican Radio interview by Charles Collins with Dr. David Albert Jones here.