I had some experience while on my trauma/acute care rotation with brain death and organ harvesting. One of my good friends was on the transplant service at the same time. "I think there's a harvest tonight," I said to him one day. A patient on our service, who had come in with severe brain damage after a hallucinogen-associated accident, had been declared brain dead. His family had consented to donation. I saw the organ donation representative with his binder and papers hovering around the room. And the patient's name disappeared from our check-out list (the list we keep of the patients so that we can hand them off to the night team). Sure enough, there was a harvest that night.
It sounds macabre, and it is. Late one evening, I was walking down the long hall of operating rooms to get a snack out of the physician's lounge. I passed by the screen at the front of the OR that displays all ongoing surgeries. Each operating room has a row, and the cases stretch out like long ribbons along the row, with every hour taking about three inches on the screen. Because it was 7:00 or 8:00 in the evening, no elective cases were scheduled. There was a laparoscopic appendectomy posted for the near future: it was about eighteen inches long on the screen. But at the bottom of the screen stretched an enormous band of orange, disappearing to either end of the screen. "HARVEST" was the procedure.
I walked down the hall. Outside the room's door were many styrofoam crates with plastic bags labeled "human organ for transplant" and advisories about temperature and transport. There was a liver box, a kidney box, a heart box, a box for blood.... No shades were drawn over the windows, so I looked in. The body on the table looked pale; I later realized that this was because blood was being taken. And instead of a cot or hospital bed waiting outside the door, as in every surgery, there was a long box on wheels. A tank, from the morgue.
The Catechism, in 2296 (in the section on Respect for the Person in Scientific Research) has this to say about organ donation:
Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.
Maureen Condic, Ph.D. wrote a helpful essay entitled "Life: Defining the Beginning by the End." Published in 2003 by First Things, the essay discusses the beginning of life by considering death. I was already a Condic fan, because of her phenomenal (and unsung) white paper on the beginning of life, and because I was a Vita Institute participant.
Condic highlights the distinction between cellular (or even organ) life and life of the organism. (Busy people read the bold.)
Brain death occurs when there has been irreversible damage to the brain, resulting in a complete and permanent failure of brain function. Following the death of the brain, the person stops...sensing, moving, breathing...although many of the cells in the brain remain “alive” following loss of brain function. The heart can continue to beat spontaneously for some time following death of the brain (even hearts that have been entirely removed from the body will continue to beat for a surprisingly long period), but eventually the heart ceases to function due to loss of oxygen....If that sounded interesting to you, I encourage you to read the rest. Condic goes on to talk about how this definition excludes persistent vegetative state (i.e. we can't argue that Terry Schiavo should die from agreeing that brain death = death), and that this definition does not hang on consciousness or cognitive function (i.e. we can't euthanize the unborn, the disabled, or the demented because we agreed that brain death = death). I disagree with a few of Condic's assertions, notably that we cease to think upon brain death. (who, with the light of faith on matters like the communion of saints, would say that the soul, separated, cannot think without the brain?) But the rest of her work is medically excellent as far as I, eight months from M.D., can see. This is also philosophically sound as far as I, a bachelor in philosophy, can see.
What has been lost at death is not merely the activity of the brain or the heart, but more importantly the ability of the body’s parts (organs and cells) to function together as an integrated whole. Failure of a critical organ results in the breakdown of the body’s overall coordinated activity, despite the continued normal function (or “life”) of other organs. Although cells of the brain are still alive following brain death, they cease to work together in a coordinated manner to function as a brain should. Because the brain is not directing the [diaphragm] to contract, the heart is deprived of oxygen and stops beating. Subsequently, all of the organs that are dependent on the heart for blood flow cease to function as well. The order of events can vary considerably (the heart can cease to function, resulting in death of the brain, for example), but the net effect is the same. Death occurs when the body ceases to act in a coordinated manner to support the continued healthy function of all bodily organs. Cellular life may continue for some time following the loss of integrated bodily function, but once the ability to act in a coordinated manner has been lost, “life” cannot be restored to a corpse”no matter how “alive” the cells composing the body may yet be.
When I initally got my driver's license, I was still undecided about organ donation. I renewed it recently, and I'm now a donor. I encourage you to prayerfully consider donation, too. Besides saving up to 8 lives, you could also bring closure to your family after your death, all in accord with Catholic teaching, sound philosophy, and accurate medicine.
(Spoiler alert: that's not my license at left.)