A gift for life

VATICAN CITY — Right on the heels of two separate conferences on evolution will be an international congress dedicated to organ donation called “A Gift for Life.”

The Pontifical Academy for Life together with the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and Italy’s National Transplant Center will sponsor the Nov. 6-8 event to discuss the medical, legal and ethical aspects of organ donation.

Like its hot-button cousin — evolution — organ donation has experienced its fair share of controversy, too. For example, using the biological signs of brain death as criteria for determining death has been under dispute by some Catholic doctors and leaders for a while now. The debate is critical for health care ethics particularly on the question of organs being harvested from brain-dead patients whose bodies continue to function.

Two congresses sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Sciences were dedicated to “the signs of death” to verify whether brain death indeed marked the death of an individual. This one in 2005 featured experts opposed to brain-death determining death of the individual and this one in 2006 brought together medics and scholars who agree complete cessation of brain activity does mean death.

The church’s position on the matter was most eloquently stated in Pope John Paul II’s Aug. 29, 2000, speech to participants attending an international congress on transplantation. He said while it is impossible for science to determine when true death occurs, that is when the soul leaves the body, it is possible to observe certain biological signs that follow the event of death. He continued:

Here 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.

Judging by the speakers and topics outlined for the Vatican’s academy for life conference in November, dissenting opinions will be few and Pope John Paul’s position will be reinforced.

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