By Hilary White

ROME, February 16, 2009 ( – An conference set to take place in Rome this week on “brain death” seeks to clarify the position of the Catholic Church on the removal of vital organs from patients.

In November 2008, a high-profile conference on organ transplants, held in one of Rome’s most prominent conference halls, steps away from St. Peter’s Basilica, and sponsored by the Vatican’s Pontifical Academy for Life, caused an uproar when it declined to address the ethical problems of “brain death” criteria.

Hundreds of letters and appeals to the Pontifical Academy for Life from pro-life advocates around the world went un-answered and the conference went ahead with no mention of any of the controversy surrounding the use of these and other criteria that allow the removal of organs from living patients.

Pope Benedict XVI, however, in his address to the conference, warned that organ transplantation can be a source of abuses of “human dignity.”
“The main criterion,” the Pope said, 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.”

Immediately following publication of the Pope’s address, however, the Vatican website posted articles defending the use of brain death criteria in determining death for purposes of organ transplants.

In early September, as news of the organ donor conference was starting to make the rounds of the pro-life community, L’Osservatore Romano broke ranks and published an article by Lucetta Scaraffia, a professor of contemporary history at the Rome university La Sapienza, outlining the dangers of the brain death criteria.

In response, the director of the Holy See Press Office, Fr. Federico Lombardi, backpedalled away from the position taken in the article, saying it is “not an act of the Church’s magisterium, nor a document of a pontifical organism,” and that the reflections expressed in it “are to be attributed to the author of the text, and are not binding for the Holy See.”

This week’s conference has a large task ahead in convincing the Vatican to shift direction in its support of brain death criteria. In 1985, a statement from the Pontifical Academy of Sciences upheld the use of “irreversible coma” as a legitimate criterion for a definition of death for organ removal. This was reiterated in 1989 with another statement from the same academy, reinforced with a speech by John Paul II. John Paul II reinforced this position in an address to a world congress of the Transplantation Society, on August 29, 2000.

Sandro Magister, a reporter on Vatican affairs wrote in September, “In this way, the Catholic Church in fact legitimated the removal of organs as universally practiced today on people at the end of life because of illness or injury: with the donor defined as dead after an ‘irreversible coma”’ has been verified, even if he is still breathing and his heart is beating.”

Magister quoted Francesco D’Agostino, a professor of the philosophy of law and president emeritus of the Italian bioethics committee, and a member of the “ecclesial camp,” saying, “Lucetta Scaraffia’s thesis is present in the scientific realm, but it is distinctly in the minority.”

Dr. Paul Byrne is one of the organisers of this week’s conference, provided with an advance copy of his presentation. He intends to argue the case that the use of “brain death” criteria results in the removal of organs from living patients, and is tantamount to murder. (To find out more about his presentation see:

Read related coverage:

Pope Warns Organ Transplant Conference of Abuses of Death Criteria


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