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New Japanese Law Allows Heart, Lung Transplants

A law recognizing brain death takes effect today in Japan, allowing doctors here to perform heart, lung and liver transplants that were not possible previously.

Japan had been one of the few nations that did not recognize death when the brain ceases activity but the heart and other organs still are working with the help of machines. That made transplants of certain organs illegal - those that deteriorate rapidly once the heart stops. People could get corneas and kidneys in Japan but had to go abroad for hearts, lungs and livers.

That began to change in June when Japanese lawmakers rewrote the definition of “death,” creating the possibility of the first heart transplant in the country in nearly 30 years.

Japan’s only heart transplant, in 1968, prompted two criminal investigations of the chief surgeon, although he never was indicted.

“Now that a law has been officially worked out, we hope to do as much as we can,” said Dr. Takenori Yamaguchi, head of the National Cardiovascular Disease Center in Osaka.

Emotional debate had stalled passage of the law for three years.

On one side were hundreds of patients needing transplants and their doctors.

On the other were skeptics who said entrusting doctors with determining the moment of death is too dangerous. Informed consent in treatment is a new idea in Japan, and many people feel they can’t question their doctors.

Also among the law’s opponents were those who ascribe to the belief, traditional in Japan, that damaging a corpse can affect a person in the afterlife.