By Hilary White - Rome correspondent
ROME, February 26, 2009 (LifeSiteNews.com) - If a patient is able to process oxygen from the lungs into the bloodstream, maintain a normal body temperature, digest food and expel waste, grow to normal adult size from the age of four to twenty, and even carry a child to term, can he or she be considered dead? Can a person who is "dead" wake up and go on later to finish a university degree? Can a corpse get out of bed, go home and go fishing? Can he get married and have children?
These are among the real-life stories of patients declared "brain dead" presented by medical experts at the "Signs of Life" conference on "brain death" criteria held near the Vatican in Rome last week. Ten speakers, who are among the world's most eminent in their fields, sounded a ringing rebuke to the continued support among medical professionals and ethicists for "brain death" as an accepted criterion for organ removal.
Dr. Paul Byrne, the conference organizer, told LifeSiteNews.com he was delighted with the success of the conference, that he hopes will bring the message that "brain death is not death" inside the walls of the Vatican where support for "brain death" criteria is still strong.
Dr. Byrne, a neonatologist and clinical professor of pediatrics at the University of Toledo, compared the struggle against "brain death" criteria with another battle: "I'm sure that slavery was at one time well-accepted in the United States, and that people saw big benefits to slavery. And yes, it was difficult to go away from that but it was absolutely essential."
"Slavery was doing evil things to persons. This issue of 'brain death' was invented to get beating hearts for transplantation. And there is no way that this can go on. It must get stopped."
Participants came from all over the world to attend the Signs of Life conference, with speakers from Quebec, Alberta, Ontario, Germany, Poland, the US, Brazil and Italy. The conference hall was packed to standing-room only with physicians, clergy, students, journalists, and academics. Clergy included two senior officials of the Vatican curia: Francis Cardinal Arinze, the head of the Congregation for Divine Worship and Sergio Cardinal Sebastiani, the President Emeritus of the Prefecture for the Economic Affairs of the Holy See. Two senior members of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith were also present. Conference organizers told LifeSiteNews.com that they had expected no more than a hundred to attend and were surprised but very pleased with the crowd of over 170 for the one-day event.
Conflicting voices on "brain death" criteria are still battling in the Church. In February 2005, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (PAS) refused to publish the findings of its own conference after the speakers roundly denounced "brain death" as a cynical invention to further the monetary interests of organ transplanters. The speakers said that using "brain death" for the purpose of organ harvesting results in the death of helpless patients. The PAS convened a second conference in 2007 with different speakers who, with only two dissenting, supported "brain death" for organ transplants. Papers from the 2005 conference that opposed "brain death" were excluded without explanation to their authors.
During a Vatican-sponsored conference last November on organ transplantation, at which not a single speaker raised their voice against "brain death," Pope Benedict XVI warned in an address that "the removal of organs is allowed only in the presence of his actual death." But on the Monday following the Friday organ transplant conference, only the PAS conference report in favor of "brain death" was posted to the Vatican website and not the Pope's warning.
Dr. Byrne said that a major function of the Signs of Life conference was "to support Pope Benedict," whose address in November, he said, had started to turn the Church against "brain death."
"It's here to demonstrate clearly that 'brain death' never was true death. What we're trying to do is come back to the truth and protect and preserve the life that comes from God.
"When there are attacks on life, then we, as physicians, defend it and that is what this conference is for."
The Signs of Life conference, sponsored privately by various pro-life organizations, including Human Life International, the Northwest Ohio Guild of the Catholic Medical Association, American Life League and the Italian organization Associazione Famiglia Domani, stood in opposition to the second PAS conference, which was titled, "The Signs of Death."