September 27, 2022

Vatican newspaper questions brain-death criteria

Unlikely to signal change in Catholic teaching

In 1968, a landmark report from Harvard Medical School set down criteria for
determining when a person was brain dead. But 40 years later, a few maverick
doctors have questioned whether the consensus is right. If their scruples are
borne out, many procedures in transplant surgery could be at risk. The latest
twist for this unsettling critique comes from the semi-official newspaper of the
Vatican, L’Osservatore Romano.

A front-page article by Lucetta Scaraffia, a well-known history academic who
is a member of the Italian National Committee on Bio-Ethics, calls for the issue
to be re-examined. She points out that a few Catholic doctors have criticised
the Harvard criteria, that brain-death is not used in the Vatican itself, and
that Benedict XVI had expressed some reservations several years before his
recent election as Pope.

In at least one case, she noted, life-support machines were used to keep a
brain-dead pregnant woman functioning for many weeks until her baby was
delivered. Such cases, she said, "have put into question the idea that these
already were dead bodies, cadavers from which organs could be transplanted".
Moreover, the acceptance of the cessation of brain activity as death
contradicted Catholic doctrine — which involves the "absolute and integral
defence of human life" — by equating the human person with brain functions
only.

Ever since 1968 Catholic authorities have backed the Harvard guidelines – one
of the few areas on which they agree with non-believers. In 2006, a document
entitled "Why the Concept of Brain Death Is Valid as a Definition of Death" was
even endorsed by leading Vatican cardinals. So it is unlikely that Professor
Scaraffia’s article signals a sudden about-face in Catholic teaching. But in the
United States there has been a revival of the question, too – by doctors and
ethicists who argue that brain-death is not death, but vital organs may be
removed anyway. So it is more than likely that interest in the question will
grow. ~ London
Times, Sept 3