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Vatican Newspaper: Brain Death and thus Organ Donation Must be Reconsidered

By John-Henry Westen

VATICAN, September 3, 2008 ( - Only a few weeks after a prominent article appeared in the New England Journal of Medicine noting that 'brain death' does not constitute true death, the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano has carried a front-page article noting that a declaration of 'brain death' cannot be considered the end of life in light of new scientific research.

Such a determination would prohibit single vital organ donation, such as heart transplants, for Catholics or Catholic institutions, since Catholic teaching requires such organ donors to be truly dead. If potential donors cannot be said with certainty to be dead, vital organ removal would in effect constitute killing the donor.

The L'Osservatore Romano editorial, published September 2, was written by Professor Lucetta Scaraffia, vice-president of the Italian Association for Science and Life and a member of the Italian National Committee on Bio-Ethics. She notes that the Vatican accepted the 'brain death' criteria 40 years ago when it was put forward by the Harvard Medical School. She notes that in 1985, 1989, and 2006, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences still maintained that brain death was "the true criterion for death."

However, Scaraffia added that the Church accepted the new definition of death "with many reservations," noting that "in Vatican City State the certification of brain death is not used."

Commenting on the L'Osservatore Romano article, Vatican spokesman Father Federico Lombardi said that it was "interesting and authoritative" but "cannot be considered a position of the Magisterium (teaching authority) of the church."

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says on the subject of organ donation: "Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity." The statement hinges on the establishment of true death of the donors. If not, complete removal of any vital organ would kill the 'donor.' Or, as Pope John Paul II put it in 2000, "Vital organs which occur singly in the body can be removed only after death, that is from the body of someone who is certainly dead . . . This requirement is self-evident, since to act otherwise would mean intentionally to cause the death of the donor in disposing of his organs."

For the general public, organ donation is becoming ever more controversial as accounts of patients declared "brain dead" and living to tell about it are reported more and more frequently. Scaraffia points, however, to new scientific findings as raising questions for scientists. One of the new findings she points out is the case of a woman declared brain dead who could still bring an unborn child to birth while on life support.

The issue is sure to come to a head in the Vatican in the coming weeks as a Vatican conference promoting organ donation is set to take place in Rome in November.

See related coverage:

New England Journal of Medicine: 'Brain Death' is not Death

Doctor Says about "Brain Dead" Man Saved from Organ Harvesting - "Brain Death is Never Really Death"

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