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Experts warn life does not always end with brain-death

Catholic medical experts at a Pontifical Academy of Sciences-sponsored meeting have called into question the practice of harvesting vital organs from patients determined to be brain-dead.

Catholic News Service reports that some critics of the procedure, which is legal in many countries, cautioned that the complete cessation of brain activity might not indicate the actual death of the person.

"Brain death is not death," said Dr Paul Byrne, former president of the Catholic Medical Association in the US.

In a brain-dead patient, "the heart beats, the body is warm, vital organs like the liver and kidney are functioning and there is respiration, albeit supported" by a mechanical ventilator, he said during a two-day meeting sponsored by the Pontifical Academy of Sciences that concluded on Friday.

Pope John Paul II had called for the special meeting "in order to re-study the signs of death and verify at a purely scientific level the validity of the criterion of brain death," said the chancellor of the academy, Bishop Marcelo Sanchez Sorondo.

On Friday, CathNews reported that the Vatican had released a Letter from Pope John Paul II that gave in principle support to organ transplants.

But te Pope said that there must be "ongoing research on the technical-scientific level" by those who perform transplants and "a constant dialogue with experts in anthropological and ethical disciplines, so as to guarantee respect for life and for the human person."

He referred the question of "'the signs of death' on the basis of which a person's clinical death can be established with moral certainty, in order to proceed with the removal of organs for transplant."

At Vatican meeting, experts debate if brain-dead means death (Catholic News Service 4/2/05)

Pontifical Academy of Sciences
Catholic Medical Association

Pope says organ transplants must "guarantee respect for life and for the human person" (CathNews 4/2/05)

Papal letter to academy on organ transplants (Vatican Information Service 4/2/05)
Pope encourages scientists to define "brain death" (Catholic World News 3/2/05)
Pope says organ transplants must "guarantee respect for life and for the human person" (Catholic News Agency 4/2/05)

John L Allen: Italy debates artificial reproduction (National Catholic Reporter 4/2/05)
Couple can sue over discarded embryos (The Mercury 7/2/05)
Raiding the piggy bank for organs (New Zealand Herald 1/2/05)

7 Feb 2005