The heated discussion of human cloning and related genetic issues is overshadowing another, equally crucial, debate, on organ donation and transplantation. The two debates have a common feature: They are increasingly dividing those who are called to deal with these problems, including medical doctors, academics, law experts, scientists, clergy, and theologians.

Whereas the general inclination—with the notable exception of the British parliament—is to ban human cloning, the trend regarding transplants is the opposite—namely, to encourage organ donation.

The culture of organ donation received a boost late last August, when, at a six-day congress on organ transplantation. Pope John Paul II encouraged the removal of vital organs from dead patients as a genuine act of love to save the lives of others. This donation, according to the Pope, may not be unqualified and can only take place after death, because to act otherwise would mean intentionally to cause the death of the donor. In the Pope’s words, the fact that the means of determining the moment of death has shifted from the traditional cardio-respiratory-signs to the “neurological criterion” (the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity) “does not seem to conflict with the essential elements of a sound anthropology,” provided this criterion is “rigorously applied.”

But a growing minority of the scientific community is concerned that the neurological approach is invalid. So far, some 120 signatories from 19 countries—including scientists, philosophers, judges, attorneys, clergy, pro-family leaders, and disability-rights and pro-life advocates of varying political and religious persuasions—have forwarded to the Pope what constitutes the largest international public statement in history in opposition to the “brain death” criterion and unpaired vital organ transplantation. A few days later, the matter was taken up by the Jornal do Brasil, which ran a feature headlined “Movement contests the use of brain death criterion.”

Signatories include such prominent “brain death” critics as Dr. Paul Byrne (United States), Dr. Cicero Coimbra (Brazil), Dr. David Evans (England), Prof. Josef Seifert (Liechtenstein), and Dr. Yoshio Watanabe (Japan). The list features many Italians, including thoracic surgeon Luigi Gagliardi, geneticist Giuseppe Sermonti, and Nerina Negrello, the flamboyant president of Lega Nazionale Contro la Predazione di Organi e la Morte a Cuore Battente. “Inasmuch as these controversies quite literally involve matters of life and death, physical and spiritual,” they argue, “a clear understanding of their nature is vital to the survival of both life and truth. life’s guardian.”

To confirm with moral certainty that “the complete and irreversible cessation of all brain activity (in the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem)” has occurred would require the total absence of all circulation and respiration, the statement claims. Confirmation of this absence would necessitate that the cerebrum, cerebellum, and brain stem—as well as the circulatory and respiratory systems—have been destroyed.

Observing that none of the shifting sets of “so-called” neurological criteria for determining death fulfills the requirements described by the Pope in his address, the statement argues that, “In fact, ‘brain death’ is not death, and death ought not to be declared unless the entire brain and the respiratory and circulatory systems have been destroyed.” For vital organs to be suitable for transplantation, however, they must be living organs—and that requires removal from living human beings. Moreover, the signatories conclude,

persons condemned to death as “brain dead” are not “certainly dead” but, to the contrary, are certainly alive. Thus adherence to the restrictions stipulated by the Pope and the prohibitions imposed by God Himself in the Natural Moral Law precludes the transplantation of unpaired vital organs, an act which causes the death of the “donor” and violates the fifth commandment of the divine Decalogue, “Thou shalt not kill” (Deut. 5:17).

One of the signatories, American physician Dr. Paul A. Byrne, has coauthored a new book, Beyond Brain Death: The Case Against Brain Based Criteria for Human Death, which was released by Netherlands-based publisher Kluwer Academic at the very moment that country was busy decriminalizing euthanasia. One of the groups coordinating the collection of signatures is Citizens United Resisting Euthanasia, the oldest single-issue anti-euthanasia organization in the United States. Its director, Earl Appleby, Jr., has made it clear that “we are not through by any means,” and more signatures continue to amass.

This petition is likely to be remembered for another reason: an unprecedented rift in a pontifical institution. In fact, it was signed by a former secretary of the Pontifical Academy for Life (professor of bioethics Fr. Christian Marie Charlot) and two of its present members (the president of the Family of the America’s Foundation Mercedes Arzu Wilson and Prof Josef Seifert, rector of the International Academy for Philosophy in Liechtenstein), as well as two Roman Catholic bishops and other clergy, religious, and priests.

Members of a pontifical academy have distanced themselves from the official line of their institution for the first time. As Dr. Paul Byrne explained in a recent interview in London’s Catholic Times, the dissenters’ intention is not to challenge the Pope’s general teaching on the matter, which he believes to be sound, but to clarify the medical aspects. In fact, he claims, the Pope may not have grasped the finer details of this complicated medical procedure. “The Holy Father is dependent on the advisers around him,” contends Dr. Byrne.

I strongly suspect that he has not been told that you can’t get a healthy heart to be used for transplantation unless you get it from a living person. Although his teachings are clear, the medical aspects of it need to be clarified in that regard.

Dr. Byrne goes on to explain that, while a vital organ is being removed, there is blood pressure, the body temperature is being regulated, the heart is beating, and the person is passing urine. In short, the donor is still alive. “Brain death is a lie,” he argues. “One shouldn’t use the word dying because one is either alive or one is dead.” And there have been docinnented cases of people, he points out, who have fully recovered after being declared brain dead.

John Paul II has condemned all experiments in the cloning of human embryos and has encouraged the dorration of organs as a genuine act of love. But the only type of organ transplants that are acceptable, according to Dr. Byrne, are those that do not cause death —for instance, when a person offers up one of two healthy kidneys, or a lobe of his lung or liver, or donates tissue, such as bone marrow, which can be removed after death has occurred.