What is Catholic Church teaching on organ donation?

By Catholic News Service

What is the Catholic Church’s position on donating body parts for medical science?

The answer can be divided into two parts: post-mortem transplants and those from living donors.

Gifts from a donor who has clearly died, either to a living recipient or to scientific research, is the easier part.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says: “Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity” (No. 2296). The Church does teach that the remains, after organ donation or medical research, should be treated with reverence and should be entombed or buried.

As to gifts from living donors, such as bone marrow, a lung, or a kidney, this is morally permissible so long as it is not life-threatening to the donor and does not deprive the donor of an essential bodily function and provided that the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor.

In his 1995 encyclical The Gospel of Life, St. John Paul II called organ donation an example of “everyday heroism.” And in 2014, Pope Francis told the Transplantation Committee for the Council of Europe that organ donation is “a testimony of love for our neighbor.”

To offer clearly and accurately the Catholic Church’s positions on organ donation, abortion, contraception, genetic engineering, fertility treatments, vaccines, frozen embryos, and other life issues, the Vatican has released an expanded and updated guide of the Church’s bioethical teachings.

The New Charter for Health Care Workers is meant to provide a thorough summary of the Church’s position on affirming the primary, absolute value of life in the health field and address questions arising from the many medical and scientific advancements made since the first charter was published in 1994, said Monsignor Jean-Marie Mupendawatu.

The monsignor, who has been the secretary delegate for health care in the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development, said the charter “is a valid compendium of doctrine and praxis” not only for those directly involved in providing medical care, but also for researchers, pharmacists, administrators, and policymakers in the field of health care.

The charter “reaffirms the sanctity of life” as a gift from God and calls on those working in health care to be “servants” and “ministers of life” who will love and accompany all human beings from conception to their natural death, he said.

While the charter does not offer a completely “exhaustive” response to all problems and questions facing the medical and health fields, it does add many papal, Vatican, and bishops’ pronouncements made since 1994 in an effort to “offer the clearest possible guidelines” to many ethical problems facing the world of health care today, said the charter’s preface, written by the late-Archbishop Zygmunt Zimowski, president of the Pontifical Council for Health Care Ministry. The council and three others were merged together to create the new dicastery for human development.

One issue partially dealt with in the charter is vaccines produced with “biological material of illicit origin,” that is, made from cells from aborted fetuses.

Citing the 2008 instruction Dignitas Personae from the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith and a 2005 paper from the Pontifical Academy for Life, the charter said everyone has a duty to voice their disapproval of this kind of “biological material” being in use and to ask that alternatives be made available.

Researchers must “distance” themselves by refusing to use such material, even if there is no close connection between the researcher and those doing the illicit procedure, and “affirm with clarity the value of human life,” it said.

However, the charter doesn’t specifically address the situation of parents who are often obligated to consent to vaccines for their children that use human cell lines from tissue derived from aborted fetuses.

When asked for clarification of the Church’s position, one of the experts who helped revise the charter — Antonio Spagnolo, a medical doctor and bioethics professor at Rome’s Sacred Heart University — said, “there is an acceptable distance” from cooperating with the original evil of the abortions when people use the vaccines to prevent the “great danger” of spreading disease. He said the Vatican academy’s Moral Reflections on Vaccines Prepared From Cells Derived From Aborted Human Fetuses made the Church’s position clear.

Many of the issues added to the updated charter were dealt with in the doctrinal congregation’s 2008 instruction on “certain bioethical questions,” such as the immorality of: human cloning; artificial reproduction and contraception; freezing of human embryos or of human eggs; use of human embryos and embryonic stem cells for research or medical use; pre-implantation diagnosis leading to the destruction of embryos suspected of defects; and therapy that makes genetic modifications aimed at transmitting the effects to the subject’s offspring because it may potentially harm the offspring.

Other guidelines mentioned in the new charter include:

  • Organ transplantation must be at the service of life and involve free consent by the living donors or their legitimate representatives. Ascertaining the death of the donor must be diagnosed with certainty, especially when dealing with a child’s death.
  • Research in transplanting animal tissues into humans is licit as long as it does not affect “the identity and integrity” of the person, it does not carry “excessive risks” to the person, the animals involved are not subjected to unnecessary suffering, and no damage is done to biodiversity.
  • Not all human organs can be transplanted, such as the human brain, testicles, and ovaries, which are organs inseparably tied to a person’s unique and procreative identity.
  • Ovarian tissue banking for cancer patients with the aim of restoring fertility with the woman’s own tissue “does not seem to pose moral problems” and is, “in principle, acceptable.”
  • Ectopic pregnancy can lead to “serious danger” to the life of the woman, and the embryo usually does not survive. “Directly suppressive measures” against the embryo are prohibited, while procedures exclusively aimed at saving the life and health of the woman are justified.

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