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Catholic ethicists decry lax ‘brain-death’ standards [Exclusive]

February 27, 2024

Current medical criteria for diagnosing “brain death” are woefully inadequate, and more than half of organ donors who have been declared “brain dead” are still alive. These are the conclusions of a group of 151 Catholic doctors, ethicists, theologians, and others, in a statement released on February 27.

The statement, entitled Catholics United on Brain Death and Organ Donation: A Call to Action calls for an immediate moratorium on the transplantation of vital organs.

The statement unites many Catholics who have disagreed about the concept of “brain death.” Some of the signatories accept the diagnosis as valid, while others believe that “brain death” should never be considered true death. But all agree that current criteria allow for a living patient to be classified as “brain dead.” Since Catholic moral teaching allows the donation of vital organs only after death, the statement concludes that “it is therefore wrong to remove organs from patients declared dead using these inadequate criteria.”

Catholics United explains that existing medical criteria, set forth in guidelines issued in October 2023, allow for a diagnosis of brain death when there is only a partial loss of brain function. Earlier standards required a complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity. The signers of the statement agree that “the current brain-death criteria in widespread use do not provide moral (prudential) certainty of death.”

“Given the lack of moral certainty of death whenever the current brain death criteria are used,” the statement affirms, “a clear majority of vital organ donors can be presumed alive at the time of organ harvesting.”

The statement calls upon Catholics to take effective action to protect vulnerable patients from organ-harvesting and to safeguard the conscience rights of health-care professionals. The statement offers a series of concrete actions that can be taken by individuals, medical professionals and institutions, public-policy makers, and Church leaders to defend themselves, to promote a more rigorous medical definition of true death, and to advance the dignity of human life.

Among the signers of the Catholics United statement are Bishops Joseph Strickland and Athanasius Schneider; the Oxford philosopher John Finnis; and others including Judie Brown, Sister Deirdre Byrne, Roberto de Mattei, Edward Feser, Peter Kwasniewski, Michael Pakaluk, Josef Seifert, Janet Smith, and Michael Waldstein.

The statement was prepared by Joseph Eble, a physician and President of the Tulsa Guild of the Catholic Medical Association; John Di Camillo, an ethicist of The National Catholic Bioethics Center; and Peter Colosi, a philosophy professor at Salve Regina University.  

Disclaimer: The Catholics United statement has been signed by Phil Lawler, the editor of Catholic World News, and by Jeff Mirus, the founder of Trinity Communnications, the non-profit organization that runs CatholicCulture.org.

 


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  • Posted by: philtech2465 - Feb. 29, 2024 10:13 PM ET USA

    My wife, a former diabetic, benefited from a kidney and pancreas transplant when her kidneys started failing. It is deeply disturbing that her organ donor, about whom of course we know nothing, may have had their death hastened. Nevertheless, I feel obligated to maintain organ donor status despite the risk.

  • Posted by: FredC - Feb. 28, 2024 11:02 AM ET USA

    I have read that those harvesting organs first block all blood flow to the brain, thereby ensuring that the person is or will be dead. The harvester is obviously willing to kill the donor. I also read that death is certain only if there is no blood flow to the brain for at least one hour. Organs will probably be of little use if there is no blood flow to them for one hour.

  • Posted by: winnie - Feb. 27, 2024 11:58 AM ET USA

    Thank you, Phil & Jeff for signing this. John DiCamillo of the National Catholic Bioethics Center will always be in our prayers for his availability & his trustworthy & faithful to the Church’s advice during our daughter’s final illness. NCBC is a bulwark against the culture of death.