Donated Body Parts: the Moral Criteria

Father Michael Place Comments on What the Church Says

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ST. LOUIS, Missouri, JULY 5, 2004 ( An expert in Catholic health care warns that the dignity of the human body can be violated when its donated parts are used for financial gain or the remote benefit of others.

Father Michael Place, president and chief executive officer of Catholic Health Association of the United States, shared with ZENIT the danger of the «gift» character of body donation being negated through commercialization.

Q: What does the Church say on whether it is licit to donate body remains for scientific and product research?

Father Place: The Catholic Church has taught that it is ethical and even laudable to donate one’s body for scientific research if a true need exists.

Pope Pius XII, in his May 14, 1956, allocution to a group of eye specialists, suggested that «The public must be educated. It must be explained with intelligence and respect that to consent explicitly or tacitly to serious damage to the integrity of the corpse in the interest of those who are suffering, is no violation of the reverence due to the dead.»

However, the issue of product research raises another and far thornier question.

Common sensibility indicates that since the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and since humans live in communion with one another, utilitarian or financial gain is an insufficient basis for donation of organs from a live donor or a cadaver. Rather, the donor should be motivated by generosity, charity and the common good.

While Church teaching does not expressly address product research, one can infer from several Catholic documents that the sale of organs or tissue violates the fiduciary relationship between the individual and caregiver as well as the dignity of the human body. It reduces what can be a laudable act into something that is crassly materialistic and utilitarian.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church speaks about the free gift of organs after death as legitimate and potentially meritorious. Furthermore, the Pontifical Academy for Life, in its «Concluding Communiqué on the Ethics of Biomedical Research for a Christian Vision» on February 26, 2003, recognizes that science and technology can be used for good or for evil ends.

The academy therefore cautions that research be directed toward the «true common good» rather than toward private interest.

Q: Morally speaking, what are the differences among organ donation, donation of a body for anatomical study at a medical school or university, and donation of body parts and dismemberment of the body for unrestricted scientific and product research?

Father Place: In general, there are no moral differences among these various types of donation. All three involve the donation of a body or body parts to medicine or to science for the benefit of other human beings.

Donation of organs constitutes a gift of life to a specific individual or individuals, while donation to medical schools or to research companies entails less immediate benefit. But it is precisely the benefit to others, whether directly or indirectly, that justifies the use of the human body or its parts in transplantation, education or research.

Ideally, in all three types of donation, the body or its parts are given freely. In the words of Pope John Paul II in his address to participants in a conference on organ transplants on June 20, 1991: «It is a decision to offer, without reward, a part of one’s body for the health and well-being of another.» It is a gift of self, an act of love and communion, of generous solidarity with others.
<br> Moral problems arise in any type of donation when consent is not obtained from the next of kin or when persons are misled or deceived regarding the use of the body or its parts.

In addition, serious moral concerns arise when the gift character of donation is negated through commercialization, or when the use of the body or its parts is only remotely related to the benefit of others, if at all, or when due reverence is not shown to the body and its parts.

Is the selling of the body or body parts morally unacceptable? Pope Pius XII left the question open. He says in his May 14, 1956, talk, «Tissue Transplantation»: «It cannot be doubted that grave abuses could occur if a payment is demanded. But it would be going too far to declare immoral every acceptance or every demand of payment.»

Pope John Paul II, however, takes a stronger position. In his address to the participants in a conference on organ transplants he said: «Nor can (the body’s) organs and tissues ever be used as items for sale or exchange. Such a reductive materialist conception would lead to a merely instrumental use of the body, and therefore of the person. In such a perspective, organ transplantation and the grafting of tissue would no longer correspond to an act of donation but would amount to the dispossession or plundering of a body.»

In light of these statements, the respect due a corpse, and the centrality of the notion of «gift» to organ and body donation, it would seem that selling, buying and profiting from human bodies and their parts would raise serious moral concerns.

There is also something unsavory about an individual offering his or her organs or body as gift for the well-being or benefit of others and then those who receive the body or its parts turning around and selling them for profit.

This is not to say, however, that those who procure and distribute bodies and body parts cannot cover legitimate costs. It is commercialization for the sake of profit that is morally troubling.

Q: Ultimately, how should research companies treat body parts?

Father Place: The Catholic tradition is clear and consistent when it says that the body of a deceased individual must be treated with reverence and respect. The body was an essential element of the person who once was. Respect for the body is respect for the person who once subsided within it.

In the words of Pope Pius XII in his speech, «Tissue Transplantation»: «The body was the abode of a spiritual and immortal soul, an essential constituent of a human person whose dignity it shared. Something of this dignity still remains in the corpse.»

Pope John Paul II echoes this teaching, again in his address to a conference on organ transplants: «The human body is always a personal body, the body of a person. The body cannot be treated as a merely physical or biological entity, nor can its organs and tissues ever be used as items for sale or exchange.»

Hence, research companies should treat body parts with respect. They should be handled and disposed of in a respectful manner and not be treated as mere commodities to be bought, sold and profited from.

Q: What is the proper disposal of cremated remains?

Father Place: The Catholic Church permits cremation «provided that it does not demonstrate a denial of faith in the resurrection of the body,» according to the Catechism of the Catholic Church. Liturgical practice throughout the Church is a telling barometer not only of Church teaching, but of religious practice of the faithful.

Number 417 in an appendix to the «Order of Christian Funerals» insists that the «cremated remains of a body should be treated with the same respect given to the human body from which they come.»

Throughout history, Christians have had the custom of burying their dead. The Congregation for Divine Worship and Discipline of Sacraments — in Chapter 7, Number 254 of its December 2001 «Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy» — says cremated remains should be buried with the same reverence given to the bodies of the faithful departed.

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