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What is the Jewish view on organ donations?

by Rabbi Aaron Moss

  

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The Short Answer:

Jewish law distinguishes between donating organs during your lifetime and organ donation after death. While you are alive, it is one of the greatest acts you could do. In theory, the same should apply to donating organs after death. But in practice, consenting to have your organs removed after death presents some major Halachic problems.

The Askmoses 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.

Jewish 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.

to donate an organ that you can live without... 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. Thank G-d we have the Torah to give us clarity in these ultimate issues.
But there is a much more serious concern: to be usable in a transplant, most organs have to be removed from the deceased donor while the heart is still beating. While the medical and legal world has accepted brain death as a new definition of death, this remains the subject of great dispute in the Halachic world. Many experts in Jewish law maintain that if the heart is still beating, the person is still alive. They say the moment of death is defined as when the heart stops. According to this view, to remove organs from a brain dead patient while the heart is still beating is tantamount to murder.

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 can be 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.


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Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Halachic
Pertaining to Jewish Law.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.