By Hilary White

LONDON, June 24, 2009 ( – In the face of reported “uncertainty,” British Catholics have been assured by their new Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, that donating organs is “a true act of generosity.”

“I'm going to join the Register and encourage others to do the same,” he said.

Nichols was canvassed by BBC News Religious Affairs Correspondent Robert Pigott, who reported this week that Britons are “unsure” what their various religious communities teach about organ donation.

The archbishop has put his support behind the Wall of Life, an interactive campaign launched by National Health Services (NHS) Blood and Transplant. The campaign aims to promote awareness of and support for organ donation to boost the number of people joining the NHS Organ Donor Register.

Current organ transplant practices, however, have come under heavy criticism from some Catholic ethicists who say that under the widely employed “brain death” criteria, death is frequently actually brought about by the removal of vital organs from living patients. 

Dr. Paul Byrne, a neonatologist and clinical professor of paediatrics who has written extensively on the danger of “brain death” criteria in organ transplantation, expressed his misgivings about Archbishop Nichols' endorsement of the National Health Service program. Dr. Byrne, told (LSN) that he believes the archbishop has not given “sufficient reflection” to a statement by Pope Benedict in 2008 that “individual vital organs cannot be extracted except ex cadavere.”

The pope told a Vatican conference on organ donation in November 2008, “The principal criteria of respect for the life of the donator must always prevail so that the extraction of organs be performed only in the case of his/her true death.”

Dr. Byrne said, however, that “after true death, 'ex cadavere' vital organs cannot be transplanted,” due to the speed with which they decay. This has led to the rise of “brain death” criteria, which Dr. Byrne says creates a false definition of death, so as to allow for the extraction of vital organs before they are rendered unusable by actual death.

At a conference in Rome in February, Dr. Byrne told LSN that one of the biggest obstacles in fighting for the rights of patients threatened with the untimely removal of their vital organs has been the uncritical endorsement of the practice by certain factions in the Catholic Church.

Leaders in the Church of England and of the Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu communities were also canvassed and endorsed 'The Wall of Life' campaign.

Despite the unqualified support for the program by the recently appointed archbishop of Westminster, Catholics who were looking for the official teaching of their Church might have been surprised to find a more cautious approach in the Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC). 

The CCC is careful to qualify the Church's endorsement of organ transplants, saying that while organ donation can be “a noble and meritorious act,” it cannot even be regarded as “morally acceptable” if the donor does not give proper consent, or if the removal of organs causes his “disabling mutilation or death.”

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