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Pope supports organ transplants-- with caution for the donor's death with dignity November 07, 2008

Organ transplants are a "great advance of medical science" that offer "a sign of hope for many people," Pope Benedict XVI told participants in a Vatican conference on organ donation at a private audience on November 7.

The Holy Father took note of the fact that there are "long waiting lists" of patients hoping for transplants, due to a shortage of donated organs. But he cautioned that in obtaining organs for transplants, doctors must give first priority to "respect for the dignity of the person and protection of her or her individual identity."

The Pope went on to condemn profiteers who traffic in human organs. He said that "unacceptable" and "abominable" abuses in the business of organ transplants must be eliminated, especially the use of organs that are obtained without the informed consent of the donor and/or prior to the donor's death. He insisted that "vital organs must not be removed save from a dead body-- which also has a dignity that must be respected."

The ethical principles involved in this process, the Pope pointed out, are similar to those involved in the question of embryo research. A human person should never be seen as "therapeutic material," he said, saying that that approach "contradicts the cultural, civil, and ethical foundations upon which the dignity of the person rests."

Pope Benedict was speaking to participants in a 3-day conference on organ transplants that had been organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life in cooperation with the International Federation of Catholic Medical Associations. The conference itself had become a focus of controversy because critics of the acceptance of "brain death" as a medical diagnosis allowing organ transplants said they had been deliberately excluded from the talks. The Pope did not allude directly to "brain death" in his talk, but said: "Over recent years science has made further progress in ascertaining the death of a patient." In declaring a patient dead-- and thereby allowing for transplantation of vital organs-- "there must be no suspicion of arbitrariness," the Popes said, "and where certainty has not been reached the principle of precaution must prevail."