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Organ Donation

Organ Donation

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Question:

I am filling out my driver's license forms and have a question: What is the Jewish view of organ donation? I have heard there are issues with it. But I thought saving a life is the greatest thing one can do. So what's the story?

Answer:

Judaism holds life as being sacred. For this reason, donating an organ to save a life is one of the highest act of virtue one can do. But sometimes, precisely because life is sacred, organ donation is problematic.

Sometimes, precisely because life is sacred, organ donation is problematicJewish law distinguishes between donating organs during your lifetime and organ donation after death. While you are alive, to donate an organ that you can live without, like a kidney, or parts that will replenish themselves, like bone marrow or blood, in order to save or vastly improve another life is one of the greatest acts you could do.

In theory, the same should apply to donating organs after death. Being that saving lives overrides almost any other moral concern, the opportunity to do so after our death should be not only acceptable but even obligatory. So for example, though the Torah commands us to be buried whole, this command would step aside for the greater command to save lives.

But in practice, consenting to have your organs removed after death presents some heavy problems.

It is forbidden to tamper with a corpse in any way unless it is in order to directly save a life. But when you sign a consent form to have your organs removed, not all of those organs will necessarily be used for an immediate transplant. They may be used for research, or stored away, or even discarded if not needed. Jewish law only allows organ donation if it can be ensured that the organs will indeed be used to save lives.

This is a life and death question. We need higher wisdom to guide us...

But there is a much more serious concern. To be usable in a transplant, most organs have to be removed while the heart is still beating. But many authorities of Jewish law maintain that if the heart is still beating, the person is still alive. They define the moment of death as when the heart stops. So to remove organs from a brain dead patient while the heart is still beating would be tantamount to murder.

While the medical and legal world has accepted brain death as a new definition of death, many experts in Jewish law have not. To tamper with the definition of death is to start on a path that can lead to major ethical problems.

Imagine a case where 89 year old patient X is partially brain dead and, according to the doctors, certainly going to die. Patient Y in the next bed, aged thirty five, urgently needs a heart transplant. Why not pronounce X dead now rather than risk losing both patients? It may sound reasonable, but it is taking one life to save another. For those who see life as sacred, this is unconscionable.

Some countries offer an option to give consent to organs being removed on condition that a rabbi is consulted beforehand, who will ascertain that they will only be removed after absolute death (however that is to be defined) and be used only to save lives. In countries where no such option exists, we don't consent to the removal of organs after death.

This is a life and death question. We need higher wisdom to guide us. I wouldn't want to have to decide what is right and wrong based on my own subjective opinion and feelings. Thank G‑d we have the Torah to give us clarity in these ultimate issues.

Aron Moss is rabbi of the Nefesh Community in Sydney, Australia, and is a frequent contributor to Chabad.org.
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Discussion (27)
January 16, 2017
Addendum

Besides, an organ transplanted into a recipient's body could create split personality issues, since the organ donated is habituated to being attached to a particular personality and so it could react adversely if inserted into another person's body having different personality features. This is a distinct possibility.

Remember, science knows nothing at all or at the very most very little about the origin and laws governing sentience and about how sentience is attached to matter and what happens to it after death.

So, don't follow science in these arcane and most profound matters.
David Menaheim
January 16, 2017
Organ donation after death is ill-conceived as science knows nothing about consciousness and it remains in the dark about the afterlife conditions assuming that consciousness/sentience is a thing that survives the death of the body. Mystics have always referred to consciousness as a thing embedded within the matter-energy fields and say that death is not the cessation of life and that the disembodied consciousness/sentience has a life of its own under conditions determined by the laws governing conscious-energy. As the consciousness is allied with the body for years until death it appears that the disembodied consciousness doesn't immediately snap all links with the corpse and at the same time even if clinical death sets in it is no guarantee that the indwelling consciousness has lifted off from the body in minutes or hours Cases have been reported of corpses remaining undecomposed for months after burial. So, do not donate any organ after death and let the body be buried whole.
David Menaheim
December 26, 2016
Re: Organ Donation (11/26/16)
There is a halachic (Torah law) principle that one life may not be substituted for another life. If, in an act of self-sacrifice, one person protects others at the risk of their own life, that is laudable; however, no other agent may act in a way that will endanger one life for the sake of another. Additionally, a case where someone intervenes to prevent a threat from attacking a healthy person is quite different from where an act must be done to restore a person's already damaged health that will inevitably be fatal to another.
I am sure the comment about harvesting terrorist cadavers was not meant seriously, as we are bound by Torah to respect the person of another, even of an enemy, and not to deface their corpses against their will; this, aside from the fact that it would be terrible politics.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
For Chabad.org
November 25, 2016
Organ Donation
What about the incredible sacrifice of a commander who throws himself on a grenade to save the lives of his soldiers? And, of course, there are other examples of a Jew sacrificing his/her life to save others.
It seems to me -- and I am not a rabbi, nor sufficiently learned in Halachah -- that the donating of organs, even at the point of becoming brain dead with the heart still beating, can be compared to the self sacrifice above. Especially when the person making the sacrifice does so knowingly and rationally in advance, as an act of pikuach nefesh.

It also occurs to me -- and I have not yet thought it out -- that perhaps we can obtain cadavers for research from the many terrorists we manage to kill in the act or in preventing it. The propagandists already falsely accuse Israel of harvesting body parts from Palestinians anyway, so we might as well put that to good use....
Hamanslayer
Florida, USA
February 11, 2016
I have always felt like organs being used for study were saving lives, because they are teaching medical students and doctors skills that will enable them to help others.
Anonymous
October 15, 2015
Cardiac Death?
I think Anonymous you are mistaken. Most organs are taken from people who are died as confirmed by the death of their brain. Their heart is kept pumping through artificial means (respirator, medication, etc).

For more medical and halachic information I recommend you go to the website of the Halachic Organ Donor Society.
Robby Berman
Jerusalem
October 15, 2015
Clarification about organ donation
Just wanted to correct some misconceptions about Organ donation. Donation is only done when the person is considered what is known as "cardiac death" meaning the heart is no longer beating. The organs are harvested within one hour. Also a person who decides to donate organs has the option to refuse where the organs can go. Meaning they can refuse to use their organs for research purposes. As long as a jewish person confirms and sets the guidlines for their donation it is acceptable according to halacha and is considered a mitzvah.
Anonymous
July 7, 2015
Re: S(science?)
Without getting into the whole debate about the definition of death from a halachik perspective, what I believe the Rambam was referring to are things that are definite and provable, not theories or even definitions that were decided upon.
juda
July 2, 2015
The Rambam said that if there is a conflict between science and Torah, we must re-interpert the Torah. The scientific community has changed the definition of 'death' to be about the brain and not the heart. Shouldn't this allow for organ donation in the case of brain death?
Anonymous
August 11, 2014
Re: Ok to accept an organ
There is no question that one can accept an organ, and that if one is need of an organ, that another may donate it. The problem addressed here is that at times organs are harvested for reasons other than to save a life, or where the act of harvesting may constitute taking a life. As to the results of religion, I cannot speak for other religions, only for the Torah. But I always find it interesting that religion is blamed for human conflict, instead of human nature. Religious people are no more contentious than non-religious people. In the case of the Torah, we are taught that one need not be Jewish to be close to G-d, as non-Jews are bound only by the basic laws of human civilization encapsulated in the Seven Noahide Laws.
Rabbi Shmary Brownstein
Chabad.org