Seifert: “Brain death is a deception: I’ll explain why”

The New Daily Compass


The well-known Catholic philosopher Josef Seifert explains to“the utilitarianism that produced the new definition of” brain death “for the removal of organs”, John Paul II’s speech and the exchange of ideas with Benedict XVI. Clarifying: “The person (the soul) has a substantial being that can not be reduced to the use of consciousness. Above all, the thesis that the brain is the center of integral life has been scientifically refuted ».


After the discovery of the instrumental use of the new definition of “brain death” for organ harvesting and the interviews with a doctor and a philosopher , who explained the history of this new criterion launched at Harvard in ’68 along with the nefarious consequences produced, the well-known Austrian philosopher Josef Seifert, a friend of Benedict XVI and former member of the Pontifical Academy for Life (Pav), explains the scientific error behind it and why Catholics are not obliged to believe in this “false death”.

Professor Seifert, you were one of the first to raise objections about the criterion of brain death within the Church. Because?
From the first moment I heard of this new definition of death during Essener Conversations on State and Church , I was convinced that the new definition or the new criteria of death in terms of irreversible brain dysfunctions were deeply mistaken. My reasons were and are very simple and understandable by anyone:
1. One year after the first successful heart transplant, the pragmatic interest in this redefinition of death in order to obtain organs was obvious and clearly admitted (see “Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death “- Journal of the American Medical Association / JAMA , 209, pp.337-43). The intention to expel organs clearly motivated Harvard’s commission to redefine death.Harvard’s report gave no single reason, apart from two pragmatic ones, about why “brain dead” patients were dead. There are many signs and evidence that the definitions of “brain death” were particularly based on utility rather than truth. Just the fact that Harvard’s commission gives only two pragmatic reasons for this redefinition of death makes it very suspicious. The convenience of declaring someone dead for a utilitarian motivation or for “the need to have their organs” does not make that person dead. But many other reasons made me doubt.
2. How can someone declare a “dead” person if his heart beats, his breathing (though not spontaneous but sustained by ventilation) is fully functional in the lungs and in all the cells of the body and shows many other signs of life? How can one declare dead a “brain dead” mother who carries a baby in her womb and who gives birth to him nine months after having conceived him? Forcing forcibly to disconnect would kill both you and the child. How does a human body die if it has reflexes, if it can be nourished and absorb fluids, showing the “miracle” of metabolism with the transformation of food into bodily substances, being able to resist diseases thanks to its immune system, maintaining a temperature normal body, showing proportional growth (The young “brain-dead” TK was chronically “dead” for 20 years according to the definition of brain death). Does not it go against any evidence of life to claim that a person whose body shows an infinite number of trials and signs of life, exceeds puberty, is pregnant and gives birth to a living child, both dead? When did a corpse give birth to a child?
3. A bio-philosophical argument in favor of “brain death” holds that without active brain functions, man is nothing but a set of dissociated cells and organs. Only the brain would give unity to the body. But how can one attribute to the brain, an organ that is formed relatively late, preceded for many weeks by the living organism of which the brain will be, the role of central integrator of the only part of the body that brings life? A high level of integrated human life clearly precedes the formation of the brain. The brain is the product of this integrated and developing human being, not its cause nor its sole bearer. {This is the first time I have ever read this argument that since the brain begins to be later in the growth of the multi-celled organism in the womb that we will later call the fetus and baby the brain can hardly be the principle of life in the human organism – Abyssum}

4. The term “brain death” is extremely ambiguous and means totally different things: 1) the death of an organ, 2) the death of a living person whose brain is not functional. Furthermore, the physical state of the organ’s death is also completely ambiguous: 1a) brain stem death, 1b) upper brain death (brain death), 1c) complete brain death, etc. None of these extremely different concepts about what constitutes death has good arguments in its favor. Above all, given that the most complete confusion reigns about which of these “brain deaths” is to be considered the death of man and since the total confusion and uncertainty about the reasons for the respective claims of death remain, any definition unclear, confused in the content of the reasons for what is human death, it is completely immoral and violates human rights to allow the extraction of unique (non-double) vital organs on a totally shaky basis and therefore in reality, or at least potentially, of kill a human being.
5. The human person (the soul) has a substantial being that can not be reduced to the human ability to use his intellect or consciousness in an empirically demonstrable way. So many arguments of those who defend “brain death”, of those who infer from the alleged cessation of consciousness, thought and perception that a person is dead, are based on a completely wrong materialist or actualist anthropology that identifies the ” being a person “with” acting like a person “.

6) The violent reaction of the so-called dead patients when their organs are explanted, analogous to the violent reaction of the embryos when they are aborted, as the film “the silent cry” documents, proves that it is at least probable that “cerebrally dead” people are sentient and that these reactions are not “signs of Lazarus” (among other things: Lazarus was alive) in a corpse.

St. John Paul II, in a speech delivered during the international congress of the Transplant Society in 2000, spoke of “brain death” as a criterion now shared “by the international scientific community” to which the Church did not object. Are Catholics obliged to adhere to this statement?
The reason for the Pope’s speech I do not know. It may be that he gave unfounded credit to the members and leaders of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences (Pas) who twice, in 1984 unanimously and in 1989 by a large majority, opted for the acceptance of the definition of “brain death” (Professor Alan Shewmon, a renowned pediatric neurologist and perhaps the leading medical expert on the issue of “brain death”, began to doubt at that meeting about the correctness of his defense of “brain death” in 1985 and 1987, and I, invited by Pav as an expert,  had strongly opposed – Josef Seifert, “Is’ Brain Death ‘actually Death? A Critique of Redefining Man’ s Death in Terms of ‘Brain Death'” , in: RJ White, H. Angstwurm, ed. I. Carasco de Paola). But Pas’s favorable position in identifying death with “brain death” has absolutely no value. Pas (who had defended many philosophical, moral, theological, and other types of errors) has no magisterial authority. Even the vice president and, later, president of the Pontifical Academy for Life, Monsignor Elio Sgreccia, a man of broad knowledge and profound wisdom, did not accept the many voices (by Dr. Alan Shewmon, by Professor Cicero Coimbra, mine and others) who had criticized this redefinition of death. Therefore, it could also have influenced the Pope’s speech. But John Paul II’s speech to transplant doctors is not a proper ecclesial document that obliges us to consent, especially with the empirical medical judgment it contains. Therefore we are not obliged to accept this discourse of the Holy Father John Paul II in its entirety. We only have to accept the magisterial declaration that we can only take out vital organs (not double) only by certain dead people ( ex cadaver , as formulated by Pope Benedict XVI), but we must not even consent to the clearly wrong statement of John Paul II in this speech on the fact that there is a universal consensus in the medical community about “brain death” as an actual death, nor should we agree that it is legitimate to extract vital organs from patients declared “brain dead”.

The first of these statements contradicts the fact that there is a considerable (and growing) number of medical professionals and top scientists who do not agree with the definitions of “brain death”. The second statement is taken from the Pope as a consequence of the first. The doctrinal affirmation consists only in the need to be certain that a person has died before single (not double) vital organs are explanted. The rest are just medical or philosophical statements about the fact that people whose brains do not work are dead, but we have absolutely no obligation to agree with such statements, particularly when we realize that they are false. Moreover, Pope John Paul II then had serious doubts about the truth of his speech, so he asked that in 2005 another meeting of experts (myself included) was held at the Pas , where the equation was rejected by a large majority and with excellent reasons ” brain death = death. “The text of this meeting was ready to be printed, the drafts of the book corrected, but then the volume was suppressed by Pas who convened another meeting in which the majority was in favor of” brain death ” “A large part of these silenced speeches was published for the National Research Council in Italian and English (Roberto de Mattei (Ed.),” Finis Vitae: Is Brain Death still Life? National Research Council, Soveria Mannelli : Rubettino, 2006, 2007, Roberto de Mattei (Ed.), “Finis Vitae: brain death and still life?”, National Research Council, Philosophy and Science, Essays 193, Rome: Rubettino, 2007). the machinations the intelligent or the opinions of the majorities are important when the truth is at stake. Even Dr. Shewmon, when asked if we are obliged to adhere to the Pope’s speech, replied in an excellent way in ” You die only once.” Reply to Nicholas Tonti-Filippini “(Communio 39 , fall of 2012, pp. 422-494) Similarly, the doctor and theologian Doyen Nguyen explained it in an excellent article ( “Pope John Paul II and the Neurological Standard for the Determination of Death: A Critical Analysis of his Address to the Transplantation Society . The Linacre Quarterly 84 (2): 155-186, 2017).

It is said that the criterion of life has always been that of the integrated functions of the body, without which we can only speak of the functioning of certain organs or cells. In short, the body of a person with a beating heart whose brain, cerebellum and brain stem were totally damaged would be a mass of living biological material but not a person. How do you justify your position in front of a theory (that of homeostasis and of the integrative unity of functions) espoused by all physiology and science since Aristotle to judge the presence of life and soul in a body?
Obviously, there is a distinction between the life of the organism as such (or as a whole) and the life of the single cell of a hair or skin or liver, stored in a refrigerator after a fatal accident. But the question is precisely whether the brain is the central integrator and whether all the activities of integral life depend on a functioning brain. This is obviously false for the following reasons:
1. Many integrated vital functions (proportional growth, immune system, respiration in the lungs and cells if continued ventilation, blood flow, maintenance of body temperature and many others) are observed in the “brain dead” patient. The claim that the brain is the central integrator has been completely and scientifically refuted by Shewmon and its proof has been accepted by the American president of the Council on Bioethics and the German Ethics Commission .
2. The integrated totality of the human organism precedes the formation of the brain and therefore the unified life of an organism can not be made to depend, after the brain has developed, from the cerebral function.

What evidence is there that the brain is not the center of integrated vital functions, so in the case of “brain death” the human person can not be said to be dead?
As mentioned earlier, “brain death” certainly does not imply the complete loss of integrated human life. In the case of chronic “brain death” (a patient who lived for 20 years in “brain death”), integrated human life can continue for decades. The fact that a “brain-dead” patient, if the ventilation is removed when his muscular and inhaled system can not inhale air alone, will die soon, does not imply that “he is already dead “. On the contrary, he may die soon because he is still alive: corpses do not die.

Why can the soul be present in a person whose brain and brainstem are inactive but whose heart beats? And why support this is not heterodox as some say?
The human spiritual soul is not located in the brain or in a single part of the body. There is no dogma of the Church that teaches that the soul leaves a body, of a living human body, when the brain stops working. Therefore it is not heterodox to maintain that the soul lives in the body until the natural death of man. The opposite is rather unorthodox, because the Church declares as dogma that man has only one soul (not three different souls: vegetative soul – of plant -, sentient soul or sensitive soul and a rational soul). Therefore, as long as an integrated vegetative life or a sentient life is present in man (both clearly highlighted in “brain-dead” patients), the only rational human soul that confers all levels of life to the body is present.

What did Benedict XVI think of organ donation? Some say he was in agreement with the speech of John Paul II although he had erased the definition of “brain death” from his drafts by the drafts of the catechism and although in his speeches from the Pope he admitted the extraction only ex cadavere . Have you ever had a chance to confront him?
I spoke to Pope Benedict about this when he was still a cardinal, he told me that even Professor Spaemann, like me, had tried to convince him for some time to reject the definition of “brain death” as an invalid definition or as a criterion of death. I also wrote about it when he became Pope. He wrote me nothing more than what he said in his famous speech as pope on the fact that organs (vital and not double) must be explanted only ex cadavere . This statement clearly indicates that it was not without criticism of the definition of “brain death”.

What criteria should be used to ascertain the end of the integrated functions of the body and therefore the death of the person?
Only the traditional criterion of the total and irreversible collapse of all vital functions including heartbeat and respiration. To those who defend the removal of vital organs immediately after the heart has stopped beating: until resuscitation is possible, even if in some cases it is not required from a medical and moral point of view, we can not declare a dead person. Until then there will still be life and his soul will be in him. The argument that the patient in this situation no longer needs his heart is not convincing. To expel the heart, one could kill him and end the life that is still in him and that could be “revived”.

Do you think it is legitimate, after accurate diagnosis of the brain, cerebellum and brainstem completely damaged, to give voluntarily and in any case organs that would end life (like the heart) of a person in an irreversible coma as a gesture of altruism?
No, because it would mean committing suicide or murder – though for a noble cause. Even if we love another human being more than ourselves and we were ready to die for him, like St. Maximilian Kolbe, we are not the masters of man’s life and death, nor of another person or of ourselves. We can take the place of an innocent victim during a murder only if another person is committing it, but we can not ask a person who kills us. Not respecting this would be suicide or, more precisely, ask another person (who should be able to extricate our organs) to become a killer. The good cause and intention do not justify this act.

When it is possible to donate organs, if the criterion of “brain death” is not in any case admissible?
If “brain death” is not real death, then both the traffic and the donation of single (non-double) vital organs explanted by a “brain dead” person is a mistake because it means killing her. This does not exclude the will to donate a double organ {e.g. two kidneys or two eyes } when we are clearly in a state of complete and irreversible brain dysfunction. Since donating these organs does not kill us, we could also donate them during life. In any case I would not suggest it in case of a diagnosis of “brain death” that could be wrong: if in that case we would wake up, for example, without one of our kidneys or our eyes etc. it could be an unpleasant and unwanted thing. Moreover, if we decide to donate only our double and non-viable organs, it is probable that the hospital will not read our wishes well enough, perhaps even taking away the heart, our unique vital organ, and then killing us completely.

About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. hellenback7 says:

    “This is the first time I have ever read this argument that since the brain begins to be later in the growth of the multi-celled organism in the womb that we will later call the fetus and baby the brain can hardly be the principle of life in the human organism – Abyssum}”
    This is also the first time I have heard/read this compelling statement. If read with careful attention, it gives much food for thought.

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