Aid Clarifies Church's Teaching on Brain Death

Vatican Spokesman Responds to L'Osservatore Article

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By Anita S. Bourdin

VATICAN CITY, SEPT. 5, 2008 (Zenit.org).- There has been no change in Church teaching regarding the concept of "brain death" as a true criterion for death, though the criterion has to be applied correctly, reminded a Vatican spokesman.

Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, director of the Vatican press office, affirmed this in a statement Tuesday, which responded to a front page L'Osservatore Romano article on the topic of brain death and its validity.

Father Lombardi called the article, by Italian historian and journalist Lucetta Scaraffia, an "interesting and weighty contribution." But, he clarified that "it cannot be considered as the position of the magisterium of the Church."

Scaraffia's article suggested that the concept of brain death is undergoing new scrutiny, brought about, among other things, by cases in which pregnant women who are declared dead by virtue of the brain death criterion, are connected to machines to keep blood circulating and oxygen flowing until the baby can be delivered.

Her article noted that this year marks the 40th anniversary of the publication of a Harvard Medical School report that recommended using "brain death" as the criterion for ascertaining that death has occurred.

"The 40th anniversary of the new definition of brain death seems to be the occasion to re-open the discussion both at the scientific level as well as in the heart of the Catholic Church," suggested Scaraffia.

Sound anthropology

Father Lombardi explained that the Holy See's position may be consulted in Pope John Paul II's address of Aug. 29, 2000, to participants in the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society.

In that address, the Polish Pontiff noted that the "neurological criterion" for ascertaining death "consists in establishing, according to clearly determined parameters commonly held by the international scientific community, the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity -- in the cerebrum, cerebellum and brain stem. This is then considered the sign that the individual organism has lost its integrative capacity."

The Jesuit recalled how the Pope stated that "it can be said that the criterion adopted in more recent times for ascertaining the fact of death, namely 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."

And the spokesman mentioned the consequences drawn by John Paul II: "[A] health-worker professionally responsible for ascertaining death can use these criteria in each individual case as the basis for arriving at that degree of assurance in ethical judgment which moral teaching describes as 'moral certainty.'

"This moral certainty is considered the necessary and sufficient basis for an ethically correct course of action. Only where such certainty exists, and where informed consent has already been given by the donor or the donor's legitimate representatives, is it morally right to initiate the technical procedures required for the removal of organs for transplant."

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On the Net:

John Paul II's 2000 address to the Transplantation Society: www.vatican.va/holy_father/john_paul_ii/speeches/2000/jul-sep/documents/hf_jp-ii_spe_20000829_transplants_en.html