By Hilary White, Rome correspondent

ROME, November 7, 2008 ( – Pope Benedict XVI today called the trade in organs an “abomination” and warned that organ transplantation can be a source of abuses of “human dignity” akin to that of embryonic research.

The pope said that with organ donation, “the main criterion” must be “respect for the life of the donor so that the removal of organs is allowed only in the presence of his actual death.”

The pope addressed an international conference on organ transplants in Rome today, saying that donation of organs can only be licit if it does not “create a serious danger” to the health of the donor.

“Science, in recent years,” he said, “has made further progress in the determination of the death of a patient.” In the question of determination of death, the Pope cautioned, “there must not be the slightest suspicion of arbitrariness. Where certainty cannot be achieved, the principle of precaution must prevail.”

In cases where the family of the donor is making the determination, the pope said, “informed consent is the precondition of freedom, so that the transplant has the characteristic of a gift and cannot be interpreted as an act of coercion or exploitation.”

The pope also addressed the issue of organ trafficking, saying that the medical community must reject the illicit trade in organs “which often affect innocent people such as children” and the “utilitarian criteria” for donation. These must be, he said, “strongly condemned as abominable.”

Pope Benedict likened the issue of organ transplants to that of embryo research, saying, “The mere idea of considering the embryo as ‘therapeutic material’ contradicts the cultural and civil foundations and the ethical underpinnings of human dignity.”

The organ donation conference has come under heavy criticism from some members of the pro-life community for neglecting to address the issues of “brain death” and other death criteria that allow organs to be removed from living patients. Critics of “brain death” have said that it falls under the suspicion of the “arbitrariness” spoken of by Pope Benedict, arguing that it is not science that created it and other criteria for death, but ideology and a desire to provide organs. Dr. Paul Byrne, a neonatologist who has been opposing the “brain death” theory for 30 years, said that “brain death””is a fiction concocted to get organs. After true death very few, if any, organs are suitable for transplantation.”

The conference had been organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life, in collaboration with the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and the National Transplantation Center. The conference information said it was intended to “spread the culture of organ donation” and the conference schedule did not include sessions on the ethical questions of death criteria, although the pope’s remarks have offered some balance in that area, albeit without getting into the technical and ethical issues surrounding particular death criteria.

Judie Brown, president of American Life League and a member of the Pontifical Academy for Life, had called for the conference to be postponed until a meeting of Academy members could be held to discuss the issue privately.

Dr. Paul Byrne went so far as to accuse the Pontifical Academy for Life of “collaboration” with the culture of death in endorsing organ transplants, and the “brain death” criteria that drives the industry. In a letter to the Pontifical Academy for Life, Dr. Byrne wrote, “Such a display of support on the part of our Catholic Church is devastating for pro-life physicians in particular for we know what a fallacy ‘brain death’ is.”

See related coverage:

American Life League, Other Critics, Ask Vatican Pro-life Academy to Postpone Organ Donor Conference