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Surgeon in protective clothing in clinic before heart transplantTrue Touch Lifestyle / Shutterstock

(LifeSiteNews) — At least half, and probably closer to 90%, of organ donors declared brain dead are actually alive when their organs are removed.

This shocking fact is the impetus for a February 2024 statement endorsed by 151 Catholic health care professionals, theologians, philosophers, ethicists, lawyers, apologists, and pro-life advocates.

The statement, “Catholics United on Brain Death and Organ Donation: A Call to Action,” asks the faithful “to unite against utilization of the current brain death criteria” because these standards do not ensure that patients are dead when their organs are removed. It explains that current criteria for brain death establish only partial loss of brain function.

This dramatic clarification came about after a recent effort to lower the legal standard for death and updated so-called “brain death” guidelines issued in October 2023.

People assume when they agree to be an organ donor that their organs will be harvested only after their death.

The new statement calls attention to the question of whether current definitions of “brain death” align with Catholic doctrine, and more importantly, whether current medical practice on this topic contradicts Church teaching.

Published on February 27, 2024, the document was prepared by Joseph Eble, a physician and the president of the Tulsa Guild of the Catholic Medical Association; John Di Camillo, an ethicist of the National Catholic Bioethics Center (NCBC); and Peter Colosi, a philosophy professor at Salve Regina University.

According to another statement recently released by the NCBC, the Catholic Church has long encouraged organ transplantation if three ethical principles are respected: (1) the organ donor must be truly dead before vital organs are taken; the act of organ procurement must not kill the donor; (2) there must be free and informed consent; and (3) the act of donation must be a true gift, not a commercial transaction.”

The Catholics United statement came in response to an effort to change the Uniform Definition of Death Act (UDDA) and newly issued brain death guidelines.  Both statements point out that patients can be declared dead despite continued function of the hypothalamus, which is part of the brain. In other words, secular medicine now advocates that a declaration of brain death can be signed even when the brain is still functioning. The Church has always opposed this.

The Catholics United signatories therefore agree that “the current brain death criteria in widespread use do not provide moral (prudential) certainty of death,” as established by scientific studies, because they “only establish partial loss of brain function.”

 “If someone had told me most people are alive at the time their organs are harvested, I wouldn’t have believed them,” said Dr. Eble.”It doesn’t seem possible, but that’s the reality.”

Organs must be living and functional at the time of transplant. Once the donor is dead — biologically dead, not just brain dead — the organs begin to shut down immediately and, in a matter of minutes, the organs become unusable.

The motivation behind the diluted criteria for organ harvesting is the enormous organ procurement industry, now estimated to be worth $48 billion annually. Organ procurement organizations profit in direct proportion to the number of organs they harvest, so they have a compelling interest to convince families to allow them access to their loved ones.

“This is why they wanted to change the law,” stated Eble.

It is possible for a person to have no brain function and still be alive. Eble pointed to the case of a 4-year-old, “TK,” who lived over twenty years despite his brain being destroyed. His autopsy showed no brain tissue whatsoever, and yet his body was capable of absorbing nutrients andhealing wounds, as only the body of a living person could.

Eble pointed out that that the ability to make an accurate prognosis immediately after severe head injuries is quite limited. Such a patient is severely brain damaged, and the swelling in the brain mimics brain death, but the person is still alive. “I personally believe there’s sound medical evidence to show that such patients are not dead even though declared ‘brain dead’,” he declared.

“Given the lack of moral certainty of death whenever the current brain death criteria are used,  a clear majority of vital organ donors can be presumed alive at the time of organ harvesting,” Catholics United affirmed. Since the Catholic Church forbids removing vital organs when this would kill the patient, “it is therefore wrong to remove organs from patients declared dead using these inadequate criteria.”

RELATED: Why you should think twice about signing up to donate your organs

Eble described a “brain dead” person in a coma as having warm, supple, pink skin;  the ability to sweat and move; and, if pregnant, capable of gestating a child. This person is biologically alive. Yet they can be declared ‘brain dead’ today, with the debate having shifted from the biological certainty of death to the philosophical realm of ‘brain death,’ which is obviously beneficial to those in the organ transplant industry.

“When you think about it, the soul is the principle of integration with the body. What unites all the structures and makes it into a living person is the body-soul composite,” Eble emphasized.

“Our statement unites Catholics on brain death and organ donation more than ever before,” he explained.  “One of the most important aspects of the statement is that it provides Catholics in the pew with simple, actionable steps which will help them to ensure that the sacredness of human life is reverenced during their end-of-life care. We pray that this statement will help Catholics and pro-life groups to protect vulnerable patients at the end of life,
especially when it comes to organ donation.”

Those Catholic leaders who accept brain death say that patients declared dead in this way should be known to have “whole brain death.” However, some of the cosigners of the Catholics United statement do not believe that even ‘whole brain death’ is absolute biological death; they concur that it at least a stronger definition of death than the currently accepted, organ donor registry promoted, definition.

Catholics United urges the following recommendations:

  1. Declining to be an organ donor at the Department of Motor Vehicles.
  2. Refusing to be an organ donor after death in advance directives.
  3. Improving education on end-of-life care and organ donation at the pastoral level.
  4. Identifying criteria that will establish certainty of death.
  5. Advocating for conscience protection rights for health care professionals and institutions.

“We must remain very, very humble before the mystery of the human person, and we must be very, very cautious in speculating on the moment of death,” stated Eble. “We must be willing to reevaluate medical and legal norms in light of new scientific evidence—and always in light of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. When certainty has not been achieved that a person is dead—and medical evidence continues to accumulate which should make us all increasingly uncertain that we can pinpoint the exact moment of death—we cannot risk ending a patient’s life by harvesting their organs. Therefore, following the sound advice of Pope Benedict XVI on the principle of precaution, we Catholics should oppose organ harvesting from ‘brain-dead’ patients.”

For centuries, death was universally recognized as no heartbeat, circulation, pulse, respiration, or sensation. Dr. Paul Byrne sees the term ‘brain death’ as intentionally coined to create a misleading and untrue definition of death.

While he understands the Catholics United statement as an effort to educate Catholics on the facts of organ donation and to encourage them to remove themselves from organ registries, he believes it is evil to condone the taking of an organ from a living person, and that even so-called “whole death” is not death.

“Death is an event,” he stated. “There is only one death. To think in terms of, ‘whole brain death’ or ‘partial brain death’ requires a confused thought process. Brain death is not death; I mean nothing against those who have been caught up in the invented lies to get healthy organs from a person with a beating heart, circulation, respiration, digestion of food, healing of wounds, etc.  None of these occur in a cadaver. Such a patient has commonly been declared dead via fulfillment of UDDA, irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain including the brainstem.”

Dr. Byrne refers to several necessary conditions found in a dead person: disintegration, destruction, decay, decomposition, and putrefaction. He sees the challenge in trying to undo decades of lies and the incremental approach of the Catholics United position, but says, “it is morally wrong to accept the UDDA or a ‘whole brain death’ declaration. A physician has an obligation duty not to declare death unless the event of death has occurred.”

Dr. Eble highlighted the supernatural root of the debate: “The adversary is always seeking to divide, distract, deceive, and destroy. We have to see the element of spiritual warfare here in seeking unity on this issue.”

RELATED: ‘Brain death’ is a fallacy used to prop up the organ harvesting industry