A CatholicNews reader enquired about the ethics of organ donation following press reports of a brain-dead man whose organs were harvested by the Singapore General Hospital despite pleas by his family not to do so. Here is the reply by the Catholic Medical Guild. An explanation of "brain-dead" will be published in a later issue of CatholicNews.
Q: Does the Catholic Church allow the donation of organs?
Yes. The church does allow the donation of organs. The late Pope John Paul II once described transplants as "a great step forward in science's service of man, and not a few people today owe their lives to an organ transplant". (Address of John Paul II to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, Aug 29, 2000)
In fact, in his Encyclical Letter "Evangelium Vitae" ("The Gospel of Life", 1995), he had suggested that one way of nurturing a genuine culture of life "is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope" (No. 86).
However, it should also be noted that certain important conditions must be met for organ transplantation to take place in an ethical manner. Among these are the need for free, proper, full and informed consent on the part of the donor or those responsible for his care. In the case of organs taken from a dead person, it is important that the criteria for ascertaining that the donor is truly dead are met before such a procedure is carried out.
Q: In the case of the brain-dead man whose organs were harvested at the Singapore General Hospital, (he is not dead as his heart is still working), does the Catholic Church allow the removal of organs at this stage? If no, are the hospitals (MOH) aware of this?
We do not have enough information about the case mentioned to comment on it. What we can say is what the church has taught in the case regarding the death of the human person. It is always morally wrong to cause or hasten the death of a human person in order to harvest his organs for transplantation.
Organ removal from a human person can only be done after he has been confirmed "dead". Pope John Paul II had noted before that "In this regard, it is helpful to recall that the death of the person is a single event, consisting in the total disintegration of that unitary and integrated whole that is the personal self. It results from the separation of the life principle (or soul) from the corporal reality of the person." (Address of John Paul II to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society, Aug 29, 2000)
It is commonly accepted that "brain death", the "irreversible cessation of all brain functions", is a sign that death has indeed already taken place. The death of a person and the subsequent removal of his organs can be carried out without moral problems if: 1) all the criteria for determining brain death are satisfied; 2) proper informed consent has been obtained.
Q: Is it a sin if we don't want to donate our organs after our death?
No. It is not a sin to not want to donate our organs after our death. It is entirely up to the free will of the person, based on a well-formed and well-informed conscience. Yet it is encouraged. The late Pope John Paul II had said before: "every organ transplant has its source in a decision of great ethical value: 'the decision to offer without reward a part of one's own body for the health and well-being of another person' (Address to the participants in a Congress on Organ Transplants, Jun 20, 1991, No. 3). Here precisely lies the nobility of the gesture, a gesture which is a genuine act of love".