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 CNS Story:

LOSSERVATORE-BRAINDEATH (UPDATED) Sep-3-2008 (540 words) xxxi

Vatican newspaper says new questions raised about brain death

By Cindy Wooden
Catholic News Service

VATICAN CITY (CNS) -- After decades of widespread global acceptance of the cessation of all brain function -- brain death -- as true death, new questions are being raised, said an article in the Vatican newspaper.

However, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, said the article did not reflect a change in the Catholic Church's position that a person declared brain dead really is dead.

In a Sept. 2 statement he said the article "cannot be considered a position of the magisterium (teaching authority) of the church," but was simply a contribution to an ongoing discussion.

Forty years ago a committee of the Harvard Medical School published a report recommending the adoption of brain death as the criterion for declaring a person dead, noted the front-page article by Lucetta Scaraffia, a professor of contemporary history and frequent contributor to the Vatican newspaper.

In the article published Sept. 2 in L'Osservatore Romano, Scaraffia said acceptance of the Harvard report meant that the cessation of heart and lung function were no longer the only criteria for declaring someone dead, opening the way to a wider acceptance of harvesting transplantable organs from a person whose body functions continued because of a respirator.

Scaraffia said the Catholic Church accepted the new definition of death "with many reservations," and as proof of the reservations she said that "in Vatican City State the certification of brain death is not used."

Among the issues prompting the new debate, she said, are a few cases in which a pregnant woman, declared brain dead, is recognized as dead although machines are used to ensure her blood keeps circulating and her lungs keep pumping oxygen until her baby can be delivered.

These cases, she said, "have put into question the idea that these already were dead bodies, cadavers from which organs could be transplanted."

In addition, Scaraffia said, the acceptance of the cessation of brain activity as death would seem to equate the human person with brain function, contradicting Catholic teaching about the dignity of every human life from the moment of conception.

Scaraffia noted in her article that in 1985 and 1989 the Pontifical Academy of Sciences recognized brain death as "the true criterion for death."

It heard from opponents of the concept of brain death in 2005, but affirmed its position again in 2006 with a nine-page statement titled "Why the Concept of Brain Death Is Valid as a Definition of Death."

Among the signatories of the statement were Cardinal Georges Cottier, then-theologian of the papal household; Cardinal Alfonso Lopez Trujillo, then-president of the Pontifical Council for the Family; retired Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini of Milan; and Bishop Elio Sgreccia, then-president of the Pontifical Academy for Life.

Still, Scaraffia wrote, "on the 40th anniversary of the new definition of brain death it seems the discussion has reopened both from a general scientific point of view as well as in the Catholic sphere."

The question of what is life and what is death is a decisive one for many other bioethical questions being raised today, she said. But questioning the criterion of brain death means "putting into discussion one of the few points" on which Catholics and nonbelievers agreed in the last several decades, she added.

END


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