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Vatican in “Firestorm” over Brain Death Criteria for Organ Transplants

By Hilary White
November 24, 2008

ROME, November 24, 2008 ( ) – Dispute within the Vatican on the approval of so-called “brain death” criteria for organ transplants remains sharp, according to a senior Vatican correspondent. Sandro Magister, a leading Italian journalist and expert on the Vatican, wrote this week of the internal dispute over support and opposition to “brain death” criteria, the definition of death that allows vital organs to be removed from patients while their hearts are still beating.

Magister points out that in September this year, L’Osservatore Romano, the official newspaper of the Vatican, published on its front page a long article by the philosopher Lucetta Scaraffia. Scaraffia, who is the vice-president of the Italian Association for Science and Life and a member of the Italian National Committee on Bio-Ethics, called into question the Vatican’s approval of “brain death” criteria for organ transplants.

That article, said Magister, “raised a firestorm” of debate within the Vatican, coming as it did in the immediate lead-up to a generously financed international conference on organ transplants, sponsored in part by the Pontifical Academy for Life (PAV). That sponsorship had outraged pro-life advocates around the world who said that, given the problems surrounding organ transplantation, the PAV had no business promoting it. Judie Brown, a member of the PAV and the head of American Life League, had written to Academy head Archbishop Fisichella asking that the conference be postponed or cancelled altogether.

Nevertheless, Magister said, the “predominant approach” towards organ transplantation by the Vatican has been “agreement with the practice of transplanting organs after the confirmation of brain death.” It was perhaps with this “agreement” in mind that Scaraffia wrote in L’Osservatore Romano that a declaration of “brain death: cannot be considered the end of life in light of new scientific research."

The unease of the pro-life movement with “brain death” was sustained by Pope Benedict XVI’s address to the transplant conference, in which he pointedly insisted that organ donation must remain “a gift” of the donor and that organs cannot be taken from vulnerable persons without their consent.

“The main criterion,” the Pope said, must be “respect for the life of the donor so that the removal of organs is allowed only in the presence of his actual death.”

The Pope is likely to have been referring to the L’Osservatore Romano article when he told the Transplant Conference, “Science, in recent years has made further progress in the determination of the death of a patient.” In the question of determination of death, the Pope cautioned, “there must not be the slightest suspicion of arbitrariness. Where certainty cannot be achieved, the principle of precaution must prevail.”

At the same time, however, Magister says that “pressure was applied” to Pope Benedict to attempt to force him to confirm “brain death” as a valid criterion. Magister pointed out, as evidence of the dispute within the Vatican, that Bishop Marcélo Sánchez Sorondo, chancellor of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS), immediately following the Pope’s address hastened to post to the Vatican website the findings of a group of scholars at a 2006 conference of the PAS who supported “brain death” criteria.

Bishop Sorando did not also post the suppressed findings of the 2005 conference on the same topic where a majority of participants opposed 'brain death' as a true definition of death. There was a more selective invitation to pro-organ transplant scholars for the 2006 conference.

Read related coverage:

Exclusive: Sources Reveal Internal Uproar over Vatican Conference Promoting Organ Donation

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

Pope Warns Organ Transplant Conference of Abuses of Death Criteria

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