By Hilary White

ROME, November 5, 2008 ( – There is growing concern among pro-life advocates that a conference on organ transplantation sponsored by the Vatican and scheduled to start tomorrow, will not address the most pressing ethical issues surrounding “brain death” and other death criteria being used in hospitals for transplants the world over.

The conference, titled “A Gift for Life: Considerations on organ donation,” set for November 6th to 8th, will address “the importance of spreading the culture of organ donation” and is sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Judie Brown, the head of American Life League, wrote in September that the Vatican’s plans to sponsor the conference had “come as a surprise.” Brown, a member of the Academy, went so far as to ask that the Pontifical Academy for Life postpone until the issue can be discussed privately by Academy members.

Brown wrote that as a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, she and philosopher Professor Joseph Seifert had asked that the Academy “reconsider the topic of the conference and perhaps postpone it until Academy members could discuss concerns privately in a closed-door meeting.” Also sponsoring the event are the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations (FIAMC) and the Italian National Transplant Center.

Also in September, reported that other members of the Academy from around the world had written to the recently appointed President, Archbishop Salvatore Fisichella, asking him to cancel or at least postpone the conference.

The conference, however, is set to go ahead this week without any announced changes to the schedule. The website for the event says it will address the “organizational, legal and ethical aspects of organ donation.” The schedule does not include sessions on the issue of brain death or other death criteria, despite the increasing controversy over the validity of some of these criteria.

The “ethical and anthropological” issues covered, the conference website says, will include the ethical and legal aspects of “living wills” and the third day will be devoted to the role of the media in organ donation. On the last day, the conference organisers note, the teaching of the Catholic Church “may be presented.”

“The presence of the Pontifical Academy for Life enhances the ethical and moral value of the event, which seeks to identify common and shared ways of increasing further the availability of organs,” the conference brochure says.

Scheduled conference sessions for the three days include “Organ donation, the need for organs and the question of trafficking in organs”; “Ethical issues in organ supply: marketing, predation and social pressure”; “Self-giving and organ donation: an anthropological perspective”; “Bioethical considerations concerning organ donation and transplantation”; “Informed consent in organ donation and transplants: theoretical aspects”; and “Ethics of organ allocation.”

Judie Brown has asked why – if the Catholic Church has not “spoken definitively” on the question of brain death – the Academy is co-hosting the conference.

Brain death and other near-death criteria are vital to the organ donor issue, and thus critics of the conference are questioning why they have been overlooked as topics of discussion. The body’s tissues begin to break down almost immediately upon the cessation of respiration and blood circulation. Experts have estimated that heart and liver become unusable for transplants within five minutes of the heart stopping. “Brain death” criteria were therefore developed to enable vital organs to be removed from living bodies on the grounds that a person whose brain function has ceased is “functionally” dead. This criterion, as many Catholic critics have said, is based on a purely materialistic model of human life that presumes only brain function is the arbiter of the value of human life.

Catholic and other ethical critics of the brain death criteria have pointed out, therefore, that with “brain death,” living patients are being killed by the removal of their vital organs.

Brown observed, “According to the program the subject of organ donations will be high on the agenda and discussions will clearly include a discussion of brain death. At the same time, the insights and experiences of men like Dr. Paul Byrne, Bishop Fabian Bruskewitz and Professor Joseph Seifert, among others, will be neglected by the program.”

Writing earlier this year in a book published in Italian and English, Dr. Paul Byrne, a neonatologist and head of pediatrics at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Bridgeport, Connecticut, said that the many versions of the “brain death” criteria currently in use in transplant hospitals around the world are merely a means to obtain organs from living patients.

Byrne, who has studied the issues surrounding brain death and other death criteria, said that the concept of “brain death”“is a fiction concocted to get organs. After true death very few, if any, organs are suitable for transplantation.” It presents the assumption that an otherwise living body can at the same time be “dead,” he said.

“Life and true death cannot and do not exist at the same time in the same person.” Patients on ventilators have “normal respiration, a beating heart and normal blood pressure. This is quite different from true death manifested by: no breathing, no heartbeat and no reflexes. Therefore, ‘brain death’ is not simply an error; ‘brain death’ is false death.”

To express concerns contact:
  Archbishop Fisichella
  Prefect of the Pontifical Academy for Life
[email protected]

Professor G. L. Gigli
  FIAMC Past-President
[email protected]

** Important background article**
  Exclusive: Sources Reveal Internal Uproar over Vatican Conference Promoting Organ Donation

Read other related LifeSiteNews coverage:

Vatican Newspaper: Brain Death and thus Organ Donation Must be Reconsidered

New England Journal of Medicine: ‘Brain Death’ is not Death – Organ Donors are Alive

Woman’s Waking After Brain Death Raises Many Questions About Organ Donation


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