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June/July 2004

Life and Death

THE EDITOR

I am indebted to Father John Fongemie FSSP, chaplain to Canberra’s Latin Mass community, for prompting me to address two interrelated matters I have put on the backburner for too long: organ donation and so-called ‘brain death.’

Earlier this year, Father devoted his Sunday sermon to the theological and medical aspects of these issues. Thomistic and hard-hitting, it was disconcerting news for would-be organ donors in the congregation blissfully ignorant of the debate surrounding ‘brain death.’ After all, how would they know there was one? This controversy is not only ignored by the anti-life media, it is hardly prominent among pro-lifers themselves, even though the secular definition of what constitutes death - i.e. what the Culture of Death defines as death - should be a frontline issue for all upholders of the Fifth Commandment.

Around the same time as Father Fongemie’s exposition, further impetus for treating this subject was provided when a former Australian cricketer, 48-year-old David Hookes, was killed during a tragic incident in Melbourne. Following a night out with family and friends on 18 January, he was punched to the ground during an altercation outside a hotel and suffered a heart attack before lapsing into a coma. He was declared ‘brain dead’ the following day, after which his family took the decision to take him off life-support so his organs could be removed for transplantation, in accordance with his known wishes.

Sporting icons being the demigods they are Down Under, the dashing Test batsman’s premature demise and donation of his organs and tissues ignited saturation media coverage and an outpouring of emotion and admiration from his legion of fans across the country.

As a result, and despite Australia having the second lowest organ donor rate in the developed world after New Zealand (10.4 donors per million population) people were almost instantly convinced that organ donation was a good thing. Some 1,200 rushed to put their name down on the Organ Donation Register in the seven days following his death, three times the weekly average. By the end of January, the register listed 5,278 names, up from 1,784 the year before.

By 22 February, a David Hookes Foundation had been established to promote organ donation, inspiring a 40 per cent increase in organ donors during the month of March, spread across all states.

The Australian press have kept this emotionally-driven campaign on the boil ever since, with a relentless stream of heart-warming stories featuring grateful recipients of donated organs. Yet predictably, amidst the raging sentimentalism, discussion of the overriding issue - whether ‘brain death’ is, in fact, true death - has been kept well out of earshot.

It was a full six weeks after Hookes’ death before the press gave voice to such dissent, when a very brief letter from a priest appeared in Melbourne’s Herald Sun headed "What is death?" The writer, Father Kevin Robinson, called for "a government inquiry or a royal commission" into the issue while plainly and logically stating that "Organs necessary for life cannot lawfully be given away until one is truly dead; otherwise we have the crime of murder." He went on to quote this passage from a moral theologian: "Now we know as a fact that life often persists after apparent death; advance decomposition is the only certain sign of death…"

That statement encapsulates the informed dissenting view of countless medics and ecclesiastics. And it needs to be read in the knowledge that only people who are declared ‘brain dead’ and on life support are able to become organ donors – about 1 per cent of deaths - since only tissue donation can take place after the heart has stopped beating. Hence, when the Church speaks of donating organs "in an ethically acceptable manner" [Evangelium Vitae, 86], it surely cannot be referring to vital organs which occur singly in the body, since they can only be removed after death. In other words, the only ethical - and viable - unpaired vital organ donation is no such donation! But it is not just unethical, it is homicidal. Consider these facts:

"Early evening on the Monday [i.e. within 24 hours of his admission to hospital], it was announced David Hookes had died. A short time later, at 8pm, the family finished the necessary paperwork granting consent for surgeons to remove the required organs. Hookes’ heart was still beating, the life support system keeping the blood pumping until scheduled theatre at 6am the next day. That gave the donor organisers from Life Gift enough time to find suitable recipients for the chosen organs… it wasn’t until midday [when Hookes was taken into the operating room] that the life support system was finally switched off." [Herald Sun, 7 February 2004]

There is no gentle way to say it: David Hookes was killed in order to harvest his organs.

As Dr Paul Byrne declares in the ensuing article: "In an organism as complicated as a human being, no one should be pronounced dead unless and until there is destruction of at least the major vital systems of the body, i.e., the circulatory and respiratory systems, and the entire brain."

Moreover, the ‘brain dead’ contrivance, which has enabled doctors to avoid charges of euthanasia by redefining death, is doubly criminal - because not only are a person’s cardiovascular and respiratory systems still operating, but according to the official medical definition itself, as Dr Byrne points out, "96% of the so-called ‘brain-dead’ patients still have a functioning brain"!

Doctors involved in such routine killings for organ transplants comfort themselves and rationalise the murderous fact on the basis that the (clueless) family has consented and that comatose life, in their opinion, is worthless.

Of course, this is all of a piece with the charnel house morality of a death-dealing culture, steeped in the blood of its global abortion franchise. Yet during the Hookes saga, alleging a reluctance to discuss organ donation, someone perversely opined that "We Aussies are a death-denying people." Au contraire! The naked truth is that Australians, like the rest of the West, are a life-denying people. For that is the unspoken, godless philosophical outlook informing proponents of the ‘brain-death’ cult. Quite simply, like the pro-aborts, they reject the very notion of each life as a sacred gift from God and worthy of respect from conception until death, even when comatose and dying. They refute the fact that "As long as there is life in the person, that person continues to exist in all of his or her dignity, with all of his or her soul" [Bishop Elio Sgreccia, Vice-President, Pontifical Council for Life].

There is no escaping the ramifications of this fraught issue. Ultimately, it affects each and every one of us, as those forced to keep a wary eye on doctors and nurses treating comatose family members in the final hours of terminal illness can testify. An American nurse of vast experience recently reflected on what we are facing:

Just recently, some of my fellow ICU nurses told me that they thought a person could be breathing on their own, etc. and still be "brain dead"! And I have seen cases where doctors have told families that the patient was brain dead when they were not in order to convince the families to withdraw treatment. This is scary. And, of course, we have already seen the expansion of organ donors from those declared brain dead to the non-heartbeating organ donor patients who are taken off ventilators but are not brain dead (and who, in some cases, have no brain injury). It is disturbing but not surprising that there seems to be a constant blurring of the line between the dead, the almost dead and the so-called "hopeless".

This blurring fuels the commodification of human life at the expense of the love and compassion once afforded the most vulnerable, like patients in so-called "vegetative states." As well as the ‘brain death’–euthanasia con, we see it manifested in horrors such as direct acts of involuntary euthanasia, mass removal and storage of organs without consent and the international trafficking in body parts, all now reported with increasing frequency.

Even medical research on the (not-so) ‘brain-dead’ is on the rise and finding support among an increasingly pliant, amoral populace. This revealing 2003 report from the Chicago Tribune, an insidious piece of dissembling anti-life propaganda, confirms the chilling trend:

Today, many researchers remain leery of using brain-dead or terminal patients for research. They are worried about abuses, such as disrespect for dying or dead patients or the ghoulish possibility of warehouses full of bodies maintained on life support.

Yet the medical profession faced and overcame similar ethical and moral dilemmas, such as those over the concepts of brain death and the removal of organs for transplantation, which are frequently performed while bodies are on life support.

"Initially it takes one aback. It seems like a kind of grisly thing to be doing," said infectious disease expert Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann of Massachusetts General and Brigham and Women’s Hospitals. "But after further consideration I certainly would not say at this point that we don’t want to consider that kind of thing," she said. "You have to work it out so you’re not coercing people or putting them in a position where they think they can’t say no."

The advantage of using a brain-dead individual for research is that his body functions like normal with blood circulation and working lungs. But the person is dead, with no chance of resuscitation, once brain activity stops.

"It may seem cruel and macabre to do research on a brain-dead person, but it reduces the risk to the living and it makes dangerous experiments that much less dangerous," said Arthur Caplan, director of bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

As medicine’s use of the dead increases, ethicists are amazed at the deep well of altruism that it has tapped into. People want the miracles promised by research not just for themselves but for humanity in general, and they realize that sacrifices will have to be made.

"There are people who believe that the body is just a vessel for the person," said Dr. Michael DeVita, a University of Pittsburgh ethicist. "When you’re brain dead, the person is gone and so you’ve just left with the vessel. If the vessel can help somebody in the future, great, go ahead."

David Hookes would have concurred. A secularised Everyman of his utilitarian age, his purely naturalistic altruism was always going to trump any deeper consideration of ‘brain-death’ vis-à-vis the precepts of the Natural Moral Law and God’s Commandments. This pervasive materialistic mindset is leading us down the creepy legislative slope to ‘opt out’ organ donation systems like those already adopted in Spain and Italy, whereby everyone is deemed to be a donor unless they specify otherwise. Indeed, Hookesy himself was all for it. "He believed it [organ donation] should be compulsory – an automatic thing," said his stepdaughter.

How long before feeding tubes will likewise be automatically disconnected, to facilitate research and removal of organs, unless a coma patient has left written instructions to maintain them? Insidious legislation in many countries is moving relentlessly in this direction. In Britain, denying tube-feeding to patients gained crucial impetus after Tony Bland was infamously dehydrated to death in 1993. It is now an increasingly common practice backed by the Government and British Medical Association (notwithstanding the fact that more than two-thirds of British doctors remain firmly opposed to legalising euthanasia). The Draft Mental Incapacity Bill 2003 looked to consolidate and widen the scope of this deadly trend in British law [see the Guild of Catholic Doctors official submission on the Bill at http://www.catholicdoctors.org.uk]. And the Mental Capacity Bill is now about to set it all in legislative concrete.

Such twisted thinking has even penetrated the moral-ethical ramparts of supposedly Catholic minds and institutions.

Take the response to Pope John Paul II’s recent definitive pronouncement on the immorality of removal of nutrition and hydration from patients in a persistent vegetative state. The Holy Father confirmed that no judgement on their quality of life could justify such "euthanasia by omission" [full statement pp. 19-23]. Yet far from being uplifted and affirmed by this magnificent declaration, made during a March 2004 congress in Rome, it was reported that many were shocked because "the now condemned practice is commonplace at hospitals throughout the world, including Catholic hospitals" [LifeSiteNews.com, 3/5/04].

Fr John Paris, bioethics professor at Boston College reportedly said: "I think the best thing to do is ignore it, and it will go away," whilst Fr John Strynkowski, executive director of the secretariat for doctrine and pastoral practices, said that the US Catholic Conference of Bishops would have to study the papal statement along with previous statements and documents before there was any change in policy at Catholic hospitals.

In the same vein, there was also a telling exchange during the March conference. LifeSiteNews.com reported that the day before the Pope’s pronouncement:

Dr. JPM Lelkens, corresponding member of the Pontifical Academy for life, spoke on the fact that the numbers of euthanasia deaths in the Netherlands are skewed by the nation’s refusal to acknowledge withdrawal of nutrition and hydration (passive euthanasia) as euthanasia. Therefore, while Holland suggests low figures for deaths by euthanasia, Dr. Lelkens, a physician and professor in Maastrict Holland suggested that some ten per cent of deaths in the Netherlands are due to euthanasia - 3.9% from withdrawal of nutrition and hydration alone.

Dr. JCM Lavrijsen, a physician from Nijmegen Holland who was also presenting at the conference, but on palliative care, was indignant that Dr. Lelkens was referring to withdrawal of nutrition and hydration as euthanasia. In an intense exchange, Lavrijsen, an advocate of withdrawal of nutrition and hydration for patients in a persistent vegetative state, asked Lelkens publicly, "Are you accusing me of manslaughter?"

After a brief pause, Dr. Lelkens responded, "Yes, because there is no other way to define it, I am accusing you of manslaughter."

God bless Dr Lelkens (and the Holy Father for confirming his stance). But what an elemental clash between otherwise like-minded doctors! One which plays into enemy hands, since public dissent against the Pope’s ruling on nutrition and hydration of coma patients can only aid their anti-life agenda.

Wide dissemination of articles and statements like the following, which elucidate the issues touched on above, will help provide a corrective to such dissidence: stimulating greater awareness of the unholy nexus between ‘brain-death,’ euthanasia and organ donation. In this hyper-emotive battle, we need to warn the naïve and unwary about falling prey to godless altruism, pseudo-compassion and complicity in the Culture of Death.

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