Confusion about Catholic moral teaching on “brain death” may be leading some doctors and ethicists to forbid organ donations in cases where the Church would allow it.
Dr. John Haas, head of the National Catholic Bioethics Center says the confusion stems from new doubts about the medical criteria for determining “brain death.”
The issue is critical in cases where a patient’s organs are to be donated for transplant. In order to be effective, organs must be “harvested” as close to the time of death as possible.
Currently, the Church permits doctors to use “brain death” or “neurological criteria for determining death” in making end-of-life and organ donation decisions.
But recently some have suggested that these criteria are no longer acceptable. A recent book by a Catholic doctor even claims that doctors who use “brain death” criteria are committing murder.
Haas is worried that this thinking — which runs counter to Church teaching — is gaining influence and causing confusion.
In a new essay published exclusively on the website of the Catholic News Agency, Haas argues that patients and doctors can follow the Church’s teaching with a “clear conscience.”
“It is understandable that pro-life Catholics are going to be very sensitive to any possible violation of the human person’s fundamental right to life.  However, on occasion some misunderstand Catholic teaching in their pro-life zeal and deny that certain actions are morally permissible,” he writes.
The issue of “brain death” remains hotly debated in some Catholic medical circles.
“The idea that neurological criteria are not a licit means of determining death prior to organ harvesting seems to be gaining ground in certain Catholic circles,” Haas told CNA.
Some Catholic theologians and medical ethicists now believe that new brain research has raised questions about previous Catholic moral conclusions. They say this new research suggests that brain death criteria don’t provide doctors with the certainty that a person is truly dead.
Haas pointed to a recent article by E. Christian Brugger, a moral theologian at Denver’s St. John Vianney Theological Seminary and a senior ethicist at the Washington-based Culture of Life Foundation.
Brugger said that research has shown that some patients who have been “rightly diagnosed” as brain dead sill show “integrative bodily unity to a fairly high degree.” He said the research “raises a reasonable doubt that excludes ‘moral certitude’ that ventilator-sustained brain dead bodies are corpses.”
Brugger’s views have been widely circulated on the internet since being published earlier this year by the Catholic news agency, Zenit.
Haas says that despite the good intentions of Bruggers and others, their arguments run “contrary to the moral guidance the Church has provided the faithful on a critical life and death issue.”
Haas expressed concern that given Brugger’s status as an archdiocesean seminary professor, his arguments “could well unsettle consciences.”
“I fear that some Catholics, after reading Brugger’s piece, would think they would be morally compelled to refuse an organ transplant if the donor were judged to be dead using neurological criteria,” Haas said.
He acknowledged that questions remain about the moment of death and the proper safeguards needed before organs can be removed for transplant.
But he said: “The Church has provided guidance to the faithful that they can confidently follow with clear consciences.”
In his essay, Haas critiques the arguments by Brugger and others. He also explains the authoritative teaching of Blessed Pope John Paul II, as well as the Pontifical Academy for Life, and other Catholic institutions.
He concludes: “Moral certitude of death can be achieved using either cardio-pulmonary or neurological criteria, according to the magisterium of the Church.  Catholics may in good conscience offer the gift of life through the donation of their organs after death based on neurological or cardio-pulmonary criteria according to current Church teaching.  This does not mean that the teaching is irreformable. It may be modified on the basis of future scientific discoveries. However, it does mean that, at this point in time, the teaching can be followed with a clear conscience.”

Haas’ essay can be found here: