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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.

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 Jewish law maintains that if the heart is still beating, the person is still alive. The moment of death is defined as when the heart stops. So to remove organs from a brain dead patient while the heart is still beating is tantamount to murder.

While the medical and legal world has accepted brain death as a new definition of death, the vast majority of 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.

This is a life and death question. We need higher wisdom to guide us...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 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 (18)
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
July 30, 2014
Ok to accept an organ but maybe or maybe not to donate one?
So let me get this straight no where does it say you cant accept an organ just the confusion on whether or not you may donate one. I am a post heart transplant patient and not a day goes by that I do not feel worthy of such a gift. But since the transplant my epiphany is religion in general. I have no doubts of God just religion and or all its different beliefs never was it its God's will to or desire for us to turn on each other as we do. So shame on us and religion for making so many believe its OK to harm another one in the name of God
Richard
USA
June 26, 2013
I am listed for an organ transplant that will certainly prolong my life. Chances are the donor would be a very righteous gentile. I certainly I am grateful for this gift,but would not want it if it was considered murder to procure. Lets not be hypothetical. Are there prayers for this anonymous donor, them being brain or heart dead?
Anonymous
June 25, 2013
No matter one's opinion, you can sign up for a halachic donor card!
Even if you follow the opinion of Rabbi Moss that brain death is not halachic death (I personally follow this opinion, as it is the position of my rebbeim), you can get a halachic donor card that expresses your wishes. It's a good idea no matter what; you appoint a rabbi who will be consulted in case of emergency, and you have a way of expressing your wishes.
Ariel Caplan
New York, NY
June 16, 2013
Are there any prayers within Jewish faith of gratitude to a donor who's generosity has saved ones life?
Anonymous
December 22, 2012
Dr. Alexander Chudnovsky states
"If the harvest takes place before the individual's heart has stopped (thus by Jewish law he is technically alive although by civil law he may be recognized as dead)." That statement is incorrect. There are different opinions in Jewish law. There are rabbis of significant stature that do not view a beating human heart to mean that you have a living human being and therefore you should donate organs upon brain death. Some of those rabbis are Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg, so see a longer list and to watch video interviews with some of these rabbis go to www.hods.org.
Robby Berman
Jerusalem, Israel
December 20, 2012
Change the criteria, not the ethics
My 16 year old son Jacob owes his life to a heart transplant. So, I'm a bit biased.

At the time the Halachic criteria of death was established, checking for a heartbeat was the best indicator available. Today, an EEG is a better indicator, and should be the criteria of death, when possible. If an EEG isn't possible, then go by heartbeat. And still, the determination is made by rules, not arbitrarily or circumstancially.

But either way, EEG or heartbeat, the ethics behind the law would be the same - you respect the definition and sanctity of a living person.

Actually, on a tangent - I find using a lack of heartbeat as the criteria for death rather scary. Since it can be reversed by as little as a few seconds of CPR, or a quick jolt from a defibrillator.
Vince
Down South
August 8, 2012
Re: Receiving Organ Donation
Putting aside the debate about whether a person who is "brain death" is considered to be halachikly alive or not. Many Rabbis who hold that if one is "brain dead" they are still considered to be alive, hold that one is still allowed to receive an organ from such a person. The reasoning being that even if you decide not to receive the organ, they would still take it to use for someone else.

That said, others disagree and these laws are a bit complex with various factors to consider, therefore, as is always the case, one should consult with their own rabbi on all matters of Jewish law.
Yehuda Shurpin for Chabad.org
August 8, 2012
Receiving Organ Donation
What is the Jewish (general) view on a Jewish person accepting an organ donation from a person whose heart was still beating, but they were considered 'brain dead'?
Danielle
Surrey, British Columbia, Canada
June 27, 2012
Re: Stacey
You are entitled to want your body to be buried intact and nobody will take that away from you. There are many who opine that one is not obligated to donate organs after their death. The question is only if you want to do what G-d wants, then you have to figure out what does He really want. Now the argument for donating your organ in a case where you can directly save someone's life is NOT that saving a human life is more important than doing G-d's will. Rather, saving a life IS itself G-d's will as He communicated it in the Torah. In other words, saving a life is a RELIGIOUS obligation that takes precedence over other religious obligations. Following that approach, deciding when life is over - and taking an organ won't be tantamount to murder - is also determined not by human sensitivities, but by G-d's will as communicated in the Torah (which is a debate among the Halachic authorities.) You can choose if to donate after death, after consulting with the proper halachic authorities, but you can't choose to end your life early.
BD
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