Denise J. Hunnell, MD

The erosion of ethics in organ transplantation: what’s a Catholic to do?

Denise J. Hunnell, MD
By Denise Hunnell MD

November 19, 2012 ( – Caleb Beaver died at age 16 on Christmas Day in 2011 due to a previously undiagnosed congenital malformation of his blood vessels. His devastated parents agreed to the donation of his heart, kidneys, lungs, liver, and pancreas. Several months later, his mother and father were able to meet with the grateful recipient of Caleb’s heart and hear their son’s beating heart in this new body.  While the meeting could not erase their grief, the meeting offered Caleb’s parents a small bit of consolation that his death had brought life to someone else.

Organ donation can certainly be a supreme act of generosity. Pope John Paul II endorsed organ transplantation in both his encyclical Evangelium Vitae as well as his 2000 address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society as a way to build up an “authentic culture of life”. However, Pope John Paul II was also careful to insist that this lifesaving technology must be governed by critical ethical principles in order to fulfill its life affirming potential.

The first principle is the donation must be voluntary and free of all coercion. That is why there can be no sale of human organs: the prospect of financial profit would put pressure on the poor to sell their organs for subsistence. A marketplace approach would also unfairly favor those who have the means to pay as organ recipients. Second, the human dignity of both the donor and the recipient must be respected. A potential organ donor must always be seen first as a human being and a patient deserving of optimal medical care. He should never be viewed as merely a cluster of organs waiting to be harvested. With this in mind, respect for human life from conception to natural death prohibits the removal of vital organs for transplant until after a patient has died.

The explosion in organ transplant technology has resulted in a tremendous shortage of available organs. Over 6,500 patients died in 2011 while they were waiting for an organ transplant. With so many patients facing death without a transplant, it is not surprising that a black market for human organs has emerged. Organ trafficking has become a major enterprise of organized crime in Latin America, Asia and the Middle East. Western nations in Europe as well as the United States are not immune from this exploitive trade. According to the European Society of Organ Transplantation, those most likely to sell their organs include the poor, the hungry, the socially marginalized, and illegal immigrants and refugees. Dr. Francis Delmonico, a Harvard transplant surgeon, estimates that 10% of all kidney transplants worldwide are performed with illegally trafficked organs. While many governments have enacted penalties for organ trafficking, few are aggressively seeking to eliminate the black market trade of human body parts.

Perhaps even more worrisome than the deplorable practice of buying and selling human organs are the trends emerging in mainstream medicine. Two of the principles outlined by Pope John Paul II, the expectation that a potential donor is viewed as a fully human patient first, and the requirement that a donor of vital organs be dead before the organs are harvested, have long been cornerstones of transplant programs. The shortages of available organs for transplant have motivated some to question the need for such standards.

Normally, patients are not evaluated as possible organ donors until after a decision to remove life sustaining medical care is made. This ensures that the decision to withdraw extraordinary means of support is made without coercion from the transplant team waiting for the patient’s organs. The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), a nonprofit organization contracted by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to administer the nation’s organ transplant program, is revising the requirements for organ donation programs in order to allow patients to be evaluated as potential organ donors before any decisions are made about the withdrawal of life sustaining measures. The first attempt by UNOS to revise the guidelines actually designated specific neurological diseases such as high level spinal cord injuries, muscular dystrophy, and Lou Gehrig’s disease as conditions to be flagged as potential organ donors on any admission to the hospital. This brought such an outcry from disability advocates that the current revision no longer recommends singling out specific diagnoses for organ donation. Instead, all patients will be evaluated as potential donors, and no consultation with families is required. In fact, UNOS states that it is unnecessary to obtain consent for organ donation from the next of kin or other health care surrogate if a patient has indicated they want to be an organ donor through something like a living will or a check in the organ donor box on their drivers license. This rush to label a patient as an organ donor effectively removes the protective barrier between patient care and preparation for organ donation, thus diminishing the trust between patients and their doctors.

Equally disturbing is the push to remove vital organs from living patients. Since the first transplants were done, there has been a lively debate over what constitutes death, and such discussions are still active today. Some advocate for criteria that rely on the presence or absence of cardiovascular circulation and define death as the absence of a beating heart. Others push for the absence of electrical brain activity to be the gold standard of death. Until recently, the issue was always centered on reaching maximum certainty that death has occurred before harvesting organs for transplant. Now the emphasis is shifting to making sure the patient is “close enough” to dead for transplant.

In their book Death, Dying, and Organ Transplantation, Drs. Franklin Miller and Robert Truog argue that it is not necessary to wait for death in patients who are voluntary organ donors and in whom death is imminent. In Canada, the Canadian Council for Donation and Transplantation markedly loosened the neurological criteria required for organ harvesting, leading critics to question whether the patients declared dead under the new liberalized criterion are really dead.

Standard protocols for donation after circulatory death typically require a two to five minute delay from the time heart function ceases to the time organs are removed. The new UNOS requirements discussed above remove any required waiting period before removing organs after the heart stops. Each transplant center is free to define circulatory death as it sees fit. As a utilitarian ethic becomes mainstream and donor death becomes optional, the need for certainty of death becomes superfluous.

Clearly, these developments are at odds with Catholic ethical principles. The Ethical Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services clearly state:

63. Catholic health care institutions should encourage and provide the means whereby those who wish to do so may arrange for the donation of their organs and bodily tissue, for ethically legitimate purposes, so that they may be used for donation and research after death.

64. Such organs should not be removed until it has been medically determined that the patient has died. In order to prevent any conflict of interest, the physician who determines death should not be a member of the transplant team.

So what is a Catholic to do? As with other end of life decisions, it is important to designate a health care surrogate who will make sure your health care conforms to Catholic principles when you are unable to speak for yourself. In light of the increasing speed with which organs are removed from patients who have previously designated themselves as organ donors, it is wise to consider carefully the possible consequences of making your intentions to be an organ donor public through an advanced directive or a checked box on your drivers license. When possible, know your health care facility. Ideally, your hospital should be able to provide some assurance that any organ procurement protocol will assure quality care to the donor until the time of natural death and no vital organs will be removed before a patient is dead.

Organ transplantation, when done ethically, remains a heroic act of generosity.  This legitimate and life-saving practice must not be degraded by turning human organs into commodities, and turning seriously wounded or disabled persons into mere suppliers of organs.

Denise Hunnell, MD, is a Fellow of Human Life International, the world’s largest international pro-life organization. This article originally appeared on and is reprinted with permission.

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Pelosi asked: Is unborn baby with human heart a ‘human being’? Responds: ‘I am a devout Catholic’

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By Dustin Siggins

Tell Nancy Pelosi: No, supporting abortion and gay 'marriage' is not Catholic. Sign the petition. Click here.

WASHINGTON, D.C., October 2, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) -- Top Democrat Nancy Pelosi, D-CA, won't say whether an unborn child with a “human heart” and a “human liver” is a human being.

Pelosi, who is the Minority Leader in the House, was asked a question about the issue by CNS News at a press conference last week. The conservative news outlet asked, "In reference to funding for Planned Parenthood: Is an unborn baby with a human heart and a human liver a human being?”

Pelosi stumbled over her answer, saying, “Why don't you take your ideological questions--I don't, I don't have—”

CNS then asked her, "If it's not a human being, what species is it?”

It was then that Pelosi got back on stride, swatting aside the question with her accustomed reference to her “devout” Catholic faith.

“No, listen, I want to say something to you,” she said. “I don't know who you are and you're welcome to be here, freedom of this press. I am a devout practicing Catholic, a mother of five children. When my baby was born, my fifth child, my oldest child was six years old. I think I know more about this subject than you, with all due respect.”

“So it's not a human being, then?” pressed CNS, to which Pelosi said, “And I do not intend to respond to your questions, which have no basis in what public policy is that we do here.”

Pelosi has long used her self-proclaimed status as a “devout” practicing Catholic to promote abortion.

In response to a reporter’s question a proposed ban on late-term abortion in 2013, Pelosi said that the issue of late-term abortion is "sacred ground" for her.

"As a practicing and respectful Catholic, this is sacred ground to me when we talk about this," Pelosi said. "This shouldn't have anything to do with politics."

In 2008, she was asked by then-Meet the Press host David Gregory about when life begins. Pelosi said that "as an ardent, practicing Catholic, this is an issue I have studied for a long time. And what I know is that over the centuries, the doctors of the Church have not been able to make that definition....We don't know."

The Church has always taught that unborn human life is to be protected, and that such life is created at the moment of conception.

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New video: Planned Parenthood abortionist jokes about harvesting baby’s brains, getting ‘intact’ head

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By Ben Johnson

I interviewed my friend, David Daleiden, about his important work exposing Planned Parenthood's baby body parts trade on the Glenn Beck Program. David urged Congress to hold Planned Parenthood accountable and to demand the full truth. He also released never-before-seen footage showing a Planned Parenthood abortionist callously discussing how to obtain an intact brain from aborted babies.

Posted by Lila Rose on Monday, October 5, 2015


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WASHINGTON, D.C., October 5, 2015 (LifeSiteNews) - In the newest video footage released by the Center for Medical Progress, a Planned Parenthood abortionist laughs as she discusses her hope of removing the intact "calvarium," or skull, of an unborn baby while preserving both lobes of the brain.

She also describes how she first dismembers babies up to twenty weeks gestation, including two twenty-week babies she said she aborted the week before.

Dr. Amna Dermish, an abortionist with Planned Parenthood of Greater Texas, told undercover investigators she had never been able to remove the calivarium (skull) of an aborted child "intact," but she hopes to.

"Maybe next time," the investigator said.

"I know, right?" Dr. Dermish replied. "Well, this'll give me something to strive for."

Dermish, who performs abortions up to the 20-week legal limit in Austin, then described the method she used to collect fetal brain and skull specimens.

"If it’s a breech presentation [in which the baby is born feet first] I will remove the extremities first - the lower extremities - and then go for the spine," she began.

She then slides the baby down the birth canal until she can snip the spinal cord.

The buyer noted that intact organs fetch higher prices from potential buyers, who seek them for experimentation.

"I always try to keep the trunk intact," she said.

"I don't routinely convert to breech, but I will if I have to," she added.

Converting a child to the breech position is the first step of the partial birth abortion procedure. The procedure has been illegal since President Bush signed legislation in 2003 making it a federal felony punishable by two years in prison and a fine of $250,000.

According to CMP lead investigator David Daleiden, who debuted the video footage during an interview with Lila Rose on The Blaze TV, Dr. Dermish was trained by Planned Parenthood's senior director of medical services, Dr. Deborah Nucatola.

Dr. Nucatola was caught on the first CMP undercover video, discussing the side industry while eating a salad and drinking red wine during a business luncheon.

Between sips, she described an abortion process that legal experts believe is a partial birth abortion, violating federal law.

“The federal abortion ban is a law, and laws are up to interpretation,” Dr. Nucatola said on the undercover footage. “So, if I say on day one that I don't intend to do this, what ultimately happens doesn't matter.”

Daleiden told Rose he hoped that Congressional investigators would continue to pressure the organization about whether the abortion technique it uses violates federal law, as well as the $60-per-specimen fee the national organization has admitted some of its affiliates receive.

Trafficking in human body parts for "valuable consideration" is also a federal felony carrying a penalty of up to 10 years in prison and a $500,000 fine.

"That would be enough to construct a criminal case against Planned Parenthood," Daleiden said.

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Nancy Flanders


He used to be an abortionist; now, he fights to save the lives of the preborn

Nancy Flanders
By Nancy Flanders

October 5, 2015 (LiveActionNews) -- In 1976, Dr. Anthony Levatino, an OB/GYN, graduated from medical school and was, without a doubt, pro-abortion. He strongly supported abortion “rights” and believed abortion was a decision to be made between a woman and her doctor.

“A lot of people identify themselves as pro-life or pro-choice, but for so many people, it doesn’t really touch them personally; it doesn’t impact their lives in the way that I wish it would. If nothing more than in the voting booth, if nowhere else,” said Levatino in a speech for the Pro-Life Action League. “But when you’re an obstetrician / gynecologist and you say I’m pro-choice – well, that becomes rather a more personal thing because you’re the one who does the abortions and you have to make the decision of whether you’ll do that or not.”

Levatino learned how to do first and second trimester abortions. Thirty to forty years ago, second trimester abortions were done by saline injection, which was dangerous.

"For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see."

At that same time, Levatino and his wife were struggling with fertility problems and were considering adoption. They knew however, how difficult it was to adopt a newborn.

“It was the first time that I had any doubts about what I was doing because I knew very well that part of the reason why it’s difficult to find children to adopt were that doctors like me were killing them in abortions,” said Levatino.

Finally, in 1978, the couple adopted their daughter, Heather. Right after the adoption, they discovered they were expecting a baby, and their son was born just 10 months later.

Levatino describes a “perfectly happy” life at this time and says that despite those first qualms about abortion, he went right back to work performing them.

In 1981, after graduating from his residency, Levatino joined an OB/GYN practice which also offered abortions as a service. Saline infusion was the most common method for second trimester abortions at the time, but it ran the risk of babies born alive. The procedures were also expensive, difficult, and required the mother to go through labor. Levatino and his partners trained themselves to perform the D&E abortion procedure, which is used today.

In his speech, he describes what it’s like to perform the now routine procedure:

You take an instrument like this called a sopher clamp and you basically – the surgery is that you literally tear a child to pieces. The suction is only for the fluid. The rest of it is literally dismembering a child piece by piece with an abortion instrument […] absolutely gut-wrenching procedure.

Over the next four years, Levatino would perform 1,200 abortions, over 100 of them D&E, second trimester abortions.

But then everything changed. On a beautiful day in June of 1984, the family was at home enjoying time with friends when Levatino heard tires squeal. The children were in the street and Heather had been hit by a car.

“She was a mess,” he explained. “And we did everything we possibly could. But she ultimately died, literally in our arms, on the way to the hospital that evening.”

After a while, Levatino had to return to work. And one day, his first D&E since the accident was on his schedule. He wasn’t really thinking about it or concerned. To him, it was going to be a routine procedure he had done many times before. Only it wasn’t.

“I started that abortion and I took that sopher clamp and I literally ripped out an arm or a leg and I just stared at it in the clamp. And I got sick,” he explained. “But you know something, when you start an abortion you can’t stop. If you don’t get all the pieces – and you literally stack them up on the side of the table […] your patient is going to come back infected, bleeding or dead. So I soldiered on and I finished that abortion.”

But by the time the abortion was complete, Levatino was beginning to feel a change of heart:

For the first time in my life, after all those years, all those abortions, I really looked, I mean I really looked at that pile of goo on the side of the table that used to be somebody’s son or daughter and that’s all I could see. I couldn’t see what a great doctor I was being. I didn’t see how I helped this woman in her crisis. I didn’t see the 600 dollars cash I had just made in 15 minutes. All I could see was somebody’s son or daughter. And after losing my daughter this was looking very, very different to me.

Levatino stopped performing second trimester abortions but continued to provide first trimester abortions for the next few months.

“Everybody puts doctors on a pedestal and we’re all supposed to be so smart but we’re no different than anybody else,” he said.

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He realized that killing a baby at 20 weeks gestation was exactly the same as killing one at nine weeks gestation or even two weeks gestation. He understood that it doesn’t matter how big or small the baby is, it’s a human life. He has not done an abortion since February 1985 and says there is no chance he will ever perform one again.

Adamant that he would never join the pro-life movement because of the media’s portrayal of pro-lifers as crazy, he was eventually invited to a pro-life potluck dinner where he met people who he realized were intelligent volunteers who spent their time defending preborn humans.

After that, Levatino began speaking out against abortion specifically with young people, graphically describing for them what an abortion really is.

Levatino has also testified before Congress, asking our government to end legal abortion.

Reprinted with permission from Live Action News

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