The post below was inspired by and adapted from Paul A. Byrne, MD: “Why are Pastoral Care Workers Ignorant of ‘Brain Death’?”
Jesus said, “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:11–13, ESV). Those are powerful words from the Good Shepherd, and those involved in Christian ministry must hear and heed them today. They apply to the people they shepherd, especially those involved in tragic accidents resulting in a “brain death” diagnosis and who are potential/registered organ donors.
A child knows the difference between life and death. One day the goldfish is swimming around its bowl, then the next, it’s floating on its side. Tears are shed, and the child asks why the fish isn’t moving. “The fish is dead,” the parents explain. Today, however, doctors will declare non-responsive people on ventilators dead who are still alive. United States law protects these physicians under a legal fiction called the Uniform Determination of Death Act (UDDA). This legally dead, but not biologically dead, person can then be harvested for organs and “give the gift of life” to those several recipients deemed more worthy of ongoing life. Pastors, chaplains, and other types of Christian ministers will often believe the doctors rather than their own eyes and ears, and the thievish wolves will even rope them in to exploit the people they’re supposed to shepherd and protect.
The so-called “brain-dead” person on a ventilator looks no different than the day before death was declared to the Christian minister. The heart is beating, as evidenced by the beeping sound on the cardiac monitor. Air is pushed into the lungs by the ventilator, and the still-living person exchanges oxygen with carbon dioxide in the lungs and pushes air out without the ventilator’s assistance. A corpse cannot do any of these things, nor can it benefit from a ventilator to push air into the irreversibly ceased lungs, a cardiac pacemaker to stimulate the heart, or intravenous fluids/medications to adjust vital functions in the body. The person is dead, like the goldfish mentioned above.
Many other bodily functions continue in “brain-dead” people, such as digestion, excretion, and wound healing, a complicated diffuse process throughout the body of many factors circulating in the blood and interacting with cells, tissues, and organs. There is urine production, temperature maintenance, and homeostasis of interdependently functioning organs and systems. Pregnant women can carry and nourish a baby in their womb, and a child can grow and go through puberty. Unlike the pale, cold, and blue corpses many Christian ministers have seen in the morgue or at the funerals they officiated, the person is still warm to the touch.
Not to mention, organ donors undergoing harvest surgeries require the presence of an anesthesiologist to manage increases in heart rate and blood pressure, which are more than reflex responses, as well as other objective signs of suffering in response to the cutting of flesh and sawing of bone. Also, studies have found that many people declared dead under the UDDA whole-brain standard still have a functioning hypothalamus, an essential part of the brain that interacts with the body. Several people have also recovered after a diagnosis of brain death and went on to live regular lives—but the potential/registered organ donor is declared dead.
Pastors, chaplains, and other Christian ministers are accustomed to believing what doctors tell them, but they shouldn’t, especially when they say “brain death” equals death. Christianity teaches that death occurs after the heart and lungs cease functioning and the God-breathed spirit that animated the sperm-egg union at conception separates from the body. When this happens cannot be empirically verified, nor can brain death.
Death by neurological function is rooted in philosophical materialism, a worldview at odds with Christianity. Jesus died after he breathed his last and gave up his spirit. Since he was in every way like us (Heb. 2:17; 4:5), this must be how everyone dies, and it is—even for those organ donors declared brain-dead because their still-beating hearts and still-aerating lungs are cut out of their still-living bodies and given to those deemed more worthy of ongoing life. These doctors violate their oath to preserve life and withhold important information from the vulnerable people they should protect.
There is no explicit requirement that prospective organ donors be given adequate information about the procedures involved in organ harvesting so that informed and rational decisions can be made. In almost all cases, transplant physicians, nurses, and industry representatives deny the primary medical principles of “informed consent” to families, surrogates, and potential/registered organ donors. This being the case, the role of Christian ministers as advocates becomes more critical and urgent.
How many people will agree to be organ donors after they are informed that:
1. Organs can be transplanted only when healthy and must be removed while there is respiration, circulation, and a beating heart—while a person is still alive. Removing organs ends the loved one’s life, not the removal of a ventilator and other medical treatment. (Besides, as every critical care doctor/nurse knows, patients die on ventilators all the time, and they experience irreversible cardiopulmonary cessation).
2. Many people declared “brain dead” have been misdiagnosed, and some have fully recovered. Testing to determine brain death is a bedside exam that evaluates brain stem reflexes, not the whole brain. It is now well-established that 50 percent of those diagnosed as brain dead still have a functioning hypothalamus, and 20 percent still have detectable electrical activity. Even the most sensitive cerebral flow studies have failed to diagnose brain death accurately. The diagnosis of brain death is a judgment call based on other factors (e.g., the desire to harvest organs to make money vs. the expenditure of funds on a person deemed unworthy of ongoing life), and a definitive prognosis cannot be made.
3. The apnea test involves taking the patient off a ventilator for up to 10 minutes, which causes the loved one to suffocate (trying to hold your breath for as long as you can—that’s what it feels like). Carbon dioxide is increased to toxic levels that can cause or increase brain swelling in the already brain-injured person, which can only worsen the person’s condition and might even result in death. The apnea test will not benefit the loved one but will serve the interests of organ procurement organizations and hospitals. (Object to the apnea test, and if hospitals insist on doing it, threaten a lawsuit under the ethical responsibility that they must not harm a patient and their legal obligation to provide informed consent to explain the risks of it.)
4. Organ donors usually need anesthesia or other powerful paralyzing drugs to prevent them from moving during the operation when their vital organs are cut out of their bodies. Yet, they may be denied anesthesia and other forms of sedation. There are documented cases of people declared brain dead or in a deep coma, and after coming out of a coma, they reported they were aware of what was happening around them and the ability to experience suffering.
5. After the organ procurement surgery, the loved one will be reduced to little more than a bloody empty mess of a carcass.
Before signing the donor application or donor card, all potential donors should understand that once they have agreed to be a donor, their interests and welfare become secondary to the organ recipients and organ transplant industry. They will no longer be considered “patients” after a diagnosis of “brain death” but a source of spare human parts and vital organs for transplantation, therapy, research, and education. The potential donor should know that death will be imposed on the operating table for another’s benefit and the financial good of the organ transplantation industry.
Removing vital organs from a living person before the cessation of circulation and respiration causes the donor’s death, which is euthanasia—imposed murder in a cruel and barbaric form. Christian ministers must hear these truths, preach them to their flocks, and protect their sheep from the wolves of the organ transplantation industry. “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them” (1 Peter 5:2, NIV).