VATICAN CITY – While organ donation is a generous act of love, the sale and trafficking of organs is abominable and must be condemned, said Pope Benedict XVI.
"Tissue and organ transplants represent a great advance of medical science and are certainly a sign of hope for the many people who suffer from serious and sometimes critical medical conditions," he said.
However, the scarce number of vital organs available for transplant is "dramatically real" as seen by the long waiting lists of people whose only hope for survival is "linked to meagre supplies which do not correspond to actual needs", he said in a private audience with some 500 participants attending a Nov 7 Vatican-sponsored gathering on organ donation.
The Nov 6-8 congress, titled "A Gift for Life: Considerations on Organ Donation", was sponsored by the Pontifical Academy for Life, the World Federation of Catholic Medical Associations and Italy’s National Transplant Center.
The pope thanked the medical community for its work, which has allowed many people to overcome
critical conditions and to be given back the joy of life. But the efforts of doctors and researchers in this field also depend on "the generosity and altruism of those who donated their organs", he said.
The pope underlined how important ethical considerations are at a time when the demand for organs far outweighs the available supply.
The human body can never be considered a mere object, he said, "otherwise the logic of the market would have the upper hand".
"Respect for the dignity of the person and protection of his or her individual identity" must be a priority, he said. That means those who choose to donate non-vital organs should do so only if it will not jeopardise their health or cause disabling mutilation or death, he said. The procedure also always must be "morally valid and proportional" to the good sought for the recipient, he said.
The buying and selling of organs and the adoption of "discriminatory and utilitarian criteria" that prevent equal access to receiving organs are morally illicit and unacceptable, he said.
Organ trafficking, which targets innocent people and children, must be "decisively condemned as abominable" and must prompt the scientific and medical communities to band together "to refuse it as an unacceptable practice". The same must be said for the creation and destruction of human embryos for therapeutic reasons, he added.
Informed consent by the relatives of patients who have died remains key to make sure organ donations remain a gift and "are not interpreted as acts of coercion or exploitation", he said.
"It is worthwhile to recall, nonetheless, that vital organs cannot be removed except from a dead body, which also has its own dignity that should be respected," he said.
The pope reminded his audience that in cases where death is not certain "the principle of precaution must prevail".
One congress participant, Dr. Alessandro Nanni Costa, director of Italy’s National Transplantation Center, told journalists the pope reaffirmed the current criteria used today by the world’s medical professionals in determining the death of a patient.
While the methods of ascertaining brain death may change, the concept of brain death – the complete, irreversible loss of function of the brain cerebrum and brain stem – always will remain the definition of death, said Dr. Francis Delmonico. -cns