CV NEWS FEED // The National Catholic Bioethics Center and the US Conference of Catholic Bishops released a joint statement on July 12 expressing their “serious reservations” about proposed changes to the definition of brain death in the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA).
The Uniform Law Commission (ULC), a non-profit organization that drafts model legislation that state legislatures can adopt, will make a decision next Wednesday as to whether it will amend its definition of brain death.
According to the statement, the proposed revision of the definition “would replace the standard of whole brain death with one of partial brain death”, and would change the current language in the UDDA from “irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain including the brainstem,” to “permanent loss of brainstem reflexes.”
“The basis for our objection is that the proposed revision will allow patients who exhibit partial brain function to be declared ‘legally dead’ when they are not biologically dead,” the joint statement continued.
The ULC committee that will ultimately decide on the final text of the revised UDDA consists of 15 voting members, none of whom are physicians.
According to an article from Nature, the ULC is seeking to change the current UDDA standards following a “growing number of lawsuits around the United States” against doctors and hospitals over inconsistent diagnoses of brain death.
The proclamation of brain death varies among hospitals and from state to state.
The current UDDA says “a person can be considered dead when there is an irreversible cessation of circulatory functions of the entire brain including the brainstem”; however, according to the article: “Hooked up to a ventilator, a person who is brain dead might look like any other individual in an ICU,” making it “difficult” for doctors to administer a death certificate.
As a result, the ULC is “hoping to clarify which brain areas are relevant to recovery.”
In their letter, the NCBC and the USCCB cited Pope Saint John Paul II, who said “the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity, if rigorously applied, does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of sound anthropology.”
“Nothing in Catholic teaching provides support for lowering the criterion to something less than ‘irreversible cessation of all functions of the entire brain’,” they say. “We are opposed to lowering that standard in the absence of compelling science.”
The letter further points out that while the Church is supportive of organ donation, the proposed revisions “might have the unintended effect of dissuading people—likely whether they profess the Catholic faith or not—from becoming donors and ultimately reduce the number of organs available for transplant.”
The letter raises the concern that substitution of the term “permanent” for “irreversible” will be used to justify protocols that could “directly cause the death of a donor.”
ULC commissioner James Bopp, Jr. spoke with CatholicVote about the proposed revisions.
When asked for his opinion on how the revisions will affect organ donation, Bopp said: “It is morally wrong to do anything that is detrimental to anyone else, removing organs when it would kill a person is treating a person as utilitarian, as only valuable for the organs that someone would harvest.”
“Traditionally we have separated organ harvesting from determination of death out of fear” that this would come to pass, he said.
The current UDDA standards use biological criteria, he pointed out, while the proposed criteria use “personhood, a metaphysical concept where a person who is permanently comatose can be deemed dead, and therefore have their organs harvested, ultimately killing them.”
Bopp noted that revisions would only be proposed at this month’s meeting, and that a decision to revise would not be reached until next summer. In addition, he said there will be other provisions discussed; namely, the protection of religious exemptions and allowing families more autonomy to “opt out” and seek additional care following a brain death diagnosis.
“The Commission should retain the standard of whole brain death by maintaining the current UDDA language,” the USCCB/NCBC letter concludes. “Moreover, it should encourage medical professionals to update clinical testing guidelines to fully comply with the current legal definition of brain death, not change the legal definition to comply with deficient medical criteria.”