'Brain Death' is Not Death

Judie Brown
Reproduced with Permission

In a recent edition of her e-newsletter update, Julie Grimstad, executive director of Life is Worth Living, Inc., a pro-life lay apostolate, discusses a recent medical journal article that was originally brought to our attention by LifeSiteNews.com.

My opinion is that Grimstad's analysis is so important for those of us battling against the culture of death that I want to quote it to you here:

The preeminent ethical requirement for organ transplantation is the "dead donor rule," which is that patients must be declared dead before they may be stripped of their vital organs. An article in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, this month (Vol. 359:674-675, 8/14/08), suggests that the "dead donor rule" should be discarded. Why? Because, the article's authors are not convinced that donors are really dead.

The article, "The Dead Donor Rule and Organ Transplantation," (http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/359/7/674) was written by Robert D. Truog, M.D., a professor of medical ethics and anesthesia at Harvard Medical School, and Franklin G. Miller, Ph.D., a faculty member of the National Institutes of Health, Department of Bioethics. Both authors are proponents of vital organ donation, but present convincing arguments that neither "brain death" nor "cardiac death" are really death. In other words, we ordinary people have been deceived for years. "Dead" donors are not really dead.

The authors write that the dead donor rule "has greater potential to undermine trust in the transplantation enterprise than to preserve it." "At worst," they say, "this ongoing reliance [on the rule] suggests that the medical profession has been gerrymandering the definition of death to carefully conform with conditions that are most favorable for transplantation. At best, the rule has provided misleading ethical cover that cannot withstand careful scrutiny."

Truog and Miller suggest that the solution is "valid informed consent." In other words, they think it's okay to kill people for their organs, "under the limited conditions of devastating neurologic injury," if the patient or his/her family has consented. Their proposal opens the door to taking organs from patients who have been diagnosed to be "permanently unconscious." Might expanding the category of eligible donors be the authors' actual motive for writing this article? Even if that is the case, they are at least being honest. Let's not pretend that living people are dead.

Finally, consider this: The practice of organ procurement for transplantation is unique in medicine. It contradicts key principles of medical ethics. For instance, not a single medical act involved in organ procurement is for the benefit or well-being of the patient. Everything that is done to the donor patient is referred to as "organ preservation therapy." Where is the care and respect due to the human person?

A German operating room nurse who worked in a transplant center, while viewing an exhibition on Nazi murders of hospital inmates, thought that one day she might be found complicit in medical crimes: "You cannot help thinking that if medicine continues to make such rapid progress and if what is legally acceptable today is no longer so in five or ten years--or the day after tomorrow: Have you killed all these people, have you been complicit in their killing?" (http://www.jpands.org/vol13no2/bergmann.pdf)

The Catechism of the Catholic Church (http://www.scborromeo.org/ccc/para/2296.htm) teaches that the removal of organs that would "directly bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being" is intrinsically evil. Yet this is what occurs when a surgeon removes the vital organs necessary for life from a person who is not dead. Let us pray that the honesty of Truog and Miller stimulates re-thinking of the entire business of organ procurement and transplantation.