Action Alert!

Thinking again about organ donation

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Jan 21, 2013

When you renew your driver’s license, you’ll probably be encouraged to check off a box to enroll as an organ donor. (At least you’ll be asked; in some places the government would make the decision for you, and you’d be enrolled as an organ donor without waiting for your consent.)

The willingness to donate a vital organ after death, so that someone else might live, is surely a praiseworthy thing. Indeed Pope Benedict (who once waved his own donor card at visitors) and Blessed John Paul II have both explicitly praised it.

Still it goes without saying, doesn’t it, that vital unpaired organs should be donated only after death. If the donor is still alive when the organ is removed, then the removal will be the cause of his death. Even if the donor is already dying, and even if the transplant will save a life, there’s still an insurmountable moral problem there. It’s never licit intentionally to cause the death of an innocent human being, regardless of the good that may be achieved. The ends don’t justify that means.

As a practical matter, vital organs are invariably transplanted from donors who have been declared “brain dead.” So it’s vitally important to know whether “brain death” can be confidently accepted as true death: the final end of a human life.

For years Dr. Paul Byrne, a past president of the Catholic Medical Association, has been making the argument that “brain death” is not real death—that is, the patients who have been pronounced “brain dead” are still alive. In this new column he summarizes the argument against accepting “brain death” as the end of human life. It is, unfortunately, also an argument against most organ transplants, and therefore an argument against volunteering too quickly to be an organ donor.

Phil Lawler has been a Catholic journalist for more than 30 years. He has edited several Catholic magazines and written eight books. Founder of Catholic World News, he is the news director and lead analyst at See full bio.

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  • Posted by: garedawg - Jan. 21, 2013 1:22 PM ET USA

    This article raises some very good points. Here's a possible dilemma. What if one of my children had a heart condition that would result in death without a transplant? Would I refuse him a heart transplant? Perhaps I would have to do so. I hope that the Church will help clarify some of these issues.