National Catholic Register


Euthanasia and the ‘Brain Death’ Lie

BY Mercedes Arz? Wilson and Elizabeth A. Hoag

October 31 - November 6, 1999 Issue | Posted 10/31/99 at 2:00 PM


To meet our “inescapable responsibility of choosing to be unconditionally pro-life,” as Pope John Paul II called for in Evangelium Vitae, we must oppose all euthanasia without compromise or exception, and we must expose it in all its forms.

Of course, doing so will put us at odds with much of the medical and cultural establishment of our day.

Standing counter to the popular tide, we must frequently reiterate that death ought to be declared only after the fact — never before. As the Holy Father has said, to declare death prematurely is to commit a fundamental injustice. “Brain death” is not death, and to say that a person with a beating heart, normal pulse, blood pressure, color, and temperature is “dead” is simply a lie, however cunningly packaged.

Some say that a person who cannot breathe without the help of a ventilator is already dead. Yet, often, after “brain death” has been declared, the ventilator and other life support are continued until it is convenient to harvest the “donor's” organs.

If he is alive when his vital organs are cut out of his body without the benefit of anesthesia, will he not feel pain, as does the baby in an abortion? It has been reported that when the incision is made to harvest the organs, there is an increase in the heart rate and blood pressure. Corpses, of course, have neither heart rates nor blood pressure, and after the removal of the beating heart or other vital organ, there will be no further heartbeat, breathing, or circulation. Deprived of the organs needed to sustain life, the “donor” will be cold, blue, pallid and stiff — in short, dead.

Because many physicians have been led to accept the lie of “brain death,” and because some are transplanting vital organs — even within our Catholic hospitals — I dare not remain silent but rather join our voices to those consistently raised by opponents of euthanasia.

We simply must not let this misleading phrase win a place in our lexicon.

In Favor of Life

In the past everyone knew who was dead and who was alive. If there was any doubt, it was resolved in favor of life, according to right reason and sound morals. If a hunter was even a bit uncertain whether his target were a deer or a man, should he pull the trigger? Of course not. That is why the Church has always given the benefit of the doubt to life, as shown by her traditional practice of providing the sacrament of the anointing of the sick (extreme unction) unless the signs of death are unmistakable.

We, the faithful, rely on the Holy Spirit to protect our families. We pray that he will guide those charged with grave responsibilities within the Church to make the right decisions, as well as empower them to act upon them — and oppose such egregious assaults on our God-given right to life and on the dignity of our persons.

Life is the substantial fact of the union of soul and body, for God has created man in his image and likeness. Death is the separation of soul and body.

A person is entirely alive until completely dead. Physicians, nurses and all others ought to protect life, preserve life, prolong life, and enhance the sanctity and quality of life.

“... nor can we remain silent in the face of other more furtive, but no less serious and real, forms of euthanasia. These could occur, for example, when, in order to increase the availability of organs for transplants, organs are removed without respecting objective and adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor.”

Pope John Paul II, Evangelium Vitae, 15.

The dire consequences that would ensue were Church officials to endorse “brain death” are incalculable. Persons with disabilities, especially those whose organs are wanted by others, would simply be the first victims.

And there would certainly be grave implications for the anti-abortion cause in bandying about the term “brain death” in our dialogue promoting life. After all, to confuse the brain for the soul as the essence of human life has grave implications for the preborn baby, for the human brain does not begin to develop until several weeks after conception (i.e., fertilization) and requires additional weeks to complete its development.

Such a catastrophic error would be used to rationalize abortion and every sort of nontherapeutic experimentation on the preborn child, denied recognition not only of his personhood, but also of the very fact that he is alive.

“Brain death” makes a convincing case for “brain life” and the culture of death needs little convincing. As one consistent euthanasia advocate concludes: “human life may be seen as a continuous spectrum between the onset of brain life in utero (eight weeks gestation) and the occurrence of brain death” (Goldenring, J.M., “The Brain-Life Theory: Towards a Consistent Biological Definition of Humanness,” Journal of Medical Ethics, 1985, No. 11, p. 198).

Seek True Wisdom

The principles underlying the Holy Father's call to defend life in all its forms emanate as much from natural law as from the commandments given by God to man through Moses. Natural law speaks to all men in the quiet of their hearts, but it would seem those who have not stilled the whispers of conscience through pride are more likely to hear it. Perhaps that is why the poor and marginalized — the nomadic herdsman of the African plains, the peasant in the Asian village, the migrant in the South American favella — would never think of burying a brother with a beating heart. Meanwhile, the rich and powerful would cut that same beating heart from his body if it meant improving some stronger person's life (or building some unprincipled medical professional's bank account).

To be educated is not necessarily the same as to be wise. Those who confuse the brain with the soul exaggerate the importance of the former as they denigrate the worth of the latter. This extends, not surprisingly, to the limits of their own intellects. Science is no more a substitute for common sense than it is for religion.

While authentic science affirms the truths of the universe and its divine Creator, its practitioners often usurp his prerogatives. It is a fatal mistake to leave moral questions, such as the determination of death, to a declaration by a doctor corrupted by the culture of death.

The culture of death masks its genocide with lethal language (“artificial nutrition,” “fetal reduction,” “futile treatment” and so on) while redefining the meaning of other words, such as “conception,” to serve their ends.

“Brain death” is just another weapon in their arsenal — a weapon used to increase the availability of organs for transplantation without respecting objective and adequate criteria which verify the death of the donor.

As the Holy Father reminds us, there are many kinds of euthanasia. These include, alas, even “Catholic” euthanasia, which is, of course, no more

Catholic than the “science” behind “brain death” is science. What is Catholic is to defend God's gift of life, with equal fervor, against abortion, infanticide and euthanasia — including the furtive form masquerading as “brain death.”

Mercedes Arzú Wilson is president of Family of the Americas, a pro-life organization in Dunkirk, Maryland. Elizabeth A. Hoag is a member of that group's board of directors.