August 12, 2011

Be Our Guest / Dr. Hans Geisler

Brain death is the best criterion for assessing death

In the “Be Our Guest” column in the July 8 issue of The Criterion, Dr. Paul A. Byrne and Franciscan of the Immaculate Father Peter Damian Fehlner wrote an article titled “Vital organ transplantation—not truly dead.”

In their column, they note that an organ donor of a non-paired organ should be judged dead beyond doubt before the organ, to be transplanted, is removed.

In making that point, they take issue with Father Tad Pacholczyk’s “Making Sense of Bioethics” column which appeared in the June 24 issue of The Criterion in which he gives the reasons for the Catholic Church’s acceptance of “brain death” as the definitive criterion for death having occurred.

Indeed, Byrne and Father Peter Damian, toward the end of their column, note that, “Over time, it has become clear that ‘brain death’ is not true death.”

I believe that they are wrong. If we are to encourage organ donation as a way that the deceased can help their living brethren, we should accept the Church’s assessment that brain death is the best criterion for assessing death.

My belief rests on the presumption that a careful and thorough assessment of the deceased brain’s function being totally gone has been supplied by competent medical examination. Such a judgment would assume that all the criteria, clearly elucidated in the ethical and religious directives (ERD’s) of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, have been adhered to in a painstaking manner.

The practice of organ donation as a truly beneficent gift was endorsed by Pope Benedict XVI in November 2008 when he said, “The act of love, which is expressed with the gift of one’s own vital organs, is a genuine testament of charity that knows how to look beyond death so that life always wins. … What the [recipient] receives is a testament of love, and it should give rise to a response equally generous. … In this way grows [both] the culture of the gift and gratitude.”

In supporting the acceptance of brain death as the best criterion that death has truly occurred, Father Pacholczyk quotes an address given by Blessed John Paul II in August 2000 to Catholic health care personnel, when the Holy Father stated, “The complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity, if rigorously applied, does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology.”

Father Pacholczyk writes, “As long as thorough and accurate medical testing is performed, the Church continues to support the determination of death based on neurological criteria.”

In other words, brain death is real death once brain death has been irreversibly proven to have taken place by exhaustive neurological criteria. That the brain is truly dead is therefore the definitive criterion followed by the Catholic Church, which permits the donation of any unpaired organs of a recently deceased Catholic, such as the heart, liver, etc.

In addition, this is the basis of the Catholic belief that “the transplantation of organs is morally acceptable” only when “the donor is truly dead” (Compendium: Catechism of the Catholic Church, #476).

(Dr. Hans Geisler is a retired gynecologist-oncologist and member of St. Luke the Evangelist Parish in Indianapolis. He is certified in health care ethics by the National Catholic Bioethics Center.)

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