Don’t Let Faith Stop You from Donating Your Organs

Recently, Israel did something smart regarding organ donation:

Until now, Israel ranked at the bottom of Western countries on organ donation. Jewish law proscribes desecration of the dead, which has been interpreted by many to mean that Judaism prohibits organ donation. Additionally, there were rabbinic issues surrounding the concept of brain death, the state in which organs are typically harvested. As a result, many patients died waiting for organs.

So Israel has decided to try a new system that would give transplant priority to patients who have agreed to donate their organs. In doing so, it has become the first country in the world to incorporate “nonmedical” criteria into the priority system, though medical necessity would still be the first priority.

So if you sign up to donate your organs, that’ll help you in the case you ever need one yourself. It’s almost as good as a policy that would have everyone automatically listed as organ donors unless they actively opted out of it.

At the Huffington Post, Eliyahu Federman asks religious Jews to stop believing that donating your organs would “interfere with a religious duty to be buried intact” and learn a lesson from atheists:

A student once asked a religious sage what lesson he could learn from an atheist. The sage answered: “If someone comes to you for help, you should never assume God will help him. Rather become an atheist for a moment by recognizing only you can help him.”

On the issue of posthumous organ donation my religious friends could learn a lesson from my atheist friends. They should recognize that only they can help those in need of organ transplants.

Atheists believe that when you are dead your lifeless body is just a cadaver. The notions of afterlife and proper burial are nothing more than delusions and rites that help us cope with death. The atheist has no basis to object to organ donation. If you can help someone in your death, then why not? The religious person on the other hand is sometimes fraught with questions about the afterlife and preserving the body for proper burial. Question that may unfortunately lead one to hesitate from becoming an organ donor.

I think all religions can and should agree that in this matter, a lesson can be learned from the atheists. Atheists ideology posits that our dead bodies will ultimately decay anyway, so why not use them for something positive? At the end of the day, there should be nothing more life affirming and religious than being able to save someone in your death.

I think he gets it exactly right. When it comes to doing the right thing with your dead body, atheists shouldn’t have any qualms about it. But religion makes you reconsider doing the right thing for the sake of a delusion. It boggles my mind that anyone would put stock in some sort of post-life psychological satisfaction. But there’s no good reason not to become an organ donor right now.

And even though this happens during your life, you should consider becoming a marrow donor, too. I signed up; it was incredibly easy to do.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • Bluebury

    Frankly, I’m surprised this isn’t in place already.  Great idea and maybe a wake-up call for some people to get their heads out of their butts when it comes to organ donation.  Hemant, I’ve heard that marrow donation is a fairly painful process- am I wrong?

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Hemant Mehta

      I’ve heard narrow donation is no longer as painful as it used to be, but I have not donated yet, so I don’t know for sure. I’m only in the registry.

    • http://www.suburbansweetheart.com/ Suburban Sweetheart

      Marrow donation can be painful in that it is, of course, a medical procedure, but the friends of mine who have done it say the pain is mostly like any other medical procedure in that you’re sore for a few days, groggy because of the meds, & then you’re over it. Also, many companies will provide time off for marrow donors outside of paid time off because it’s such a good thing to do. A friend of mine who did it was given a week off to recuperate by her law firm – and an Amazon gift card from her boss just because he was so proud of her for doing it! In the end, my three friends who have done it all say that the brief pain on a donor’s part is worth the outcome – saving a life.

    • Anonymous

       I’m signed up to be a marrow donor and the discomfort depends on the type of donation.

      The traditional marrow transplant involves making a small hole in your hip to extract the marrow. This is done under general anesthesia and yes, it’s painful. You’ll need pain medication at least a few days after the process but most people are fine within a week.

      A more recent process, that apparently now accounts for most marrow donations, is apheresis. In this process, you are given drugs ahead of time that mobilize the blood stem cells in your bone marrow so they circulate in your bloodstream. Then, the day of the donation you go in for something that looks a lot like dialisis, with blood coming out, being filtered to remove stem cells, and then being put back. This process involves little to no pain.

      I would encourage you to sign up if you haven’t yet. The people of the organizations that include people on the registry are usually incredibly nice and more than willing to answer any and all questions you may have.

    • OverlappingMagisteria

      The majority of patients nowadays can get away with a peripheral stem cell transplantation. This process just involves drawing blood, filtering out the white blood cells and returning the rest to the donor.
      If I’m called for an actual bone marrow transplant, I just figure the person on the other end is going through a heck of a lot more than I am.

  • http://www.suburbansweetheart.com/ Suburban Sweetheart

    I’ve always failed to understand my faith’s aversion to organ donation. The Torah teaches that there is no greater mitzvah (good deed) than saving a life & that a person may break other commandments & requirements in order to do so. It would seem to me that saving a life – or a few of them! – via organ donation would trump the commandment to be buried intact.

    • Alchemist

      Well said. I agree totally with that view of the situation.
      Does the commandment not say to love thy neighbour as thy self?
      If one believes in a loving god, would he not be pleased by what is an ultimately loving act? At the end of the day if one believes in that loving god who sacrificed his only son, (or shall at some point, not sure about the views of Jews in this regard), and the he made people in his image, is one not obliged to follow that example with our dead bodies at the very least? Would not such a generous and loving act, to save lives and the hearts of so many from sorrow and grief be a blessing for both donor and patient?

      I am so pleased that my atheist principals render such questions void. I have donated my whole body to science. I’d love to donate my organs but due to serious illness my organs would kill, so off to the medical school I go. Obviously this will not give me satisfaction after my death, but while I am living it pleases me to think that I shall help my fellow human beings in death. What’s left after I die is just flesh, but it’s useful and isn’t that the human quest, to have purpose?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Arthur-Bryne/100002441143047 Arthur Bryne

    Might possibly be more effective to base it from the number of immediate relatives (defined as: oneself, parent, sibling, half-sibling, or child) who have signed up to be organ donors.

    • Jennifer T

      You want to base it on the prospective recipient’s willingness and ability to coerce others with emotional blackmail?

  • Anonymous

    I understand that the voluntary nature of organ donation makes it a more altruistic and admirable act, but ultimately I remain unconvinced that this should not simply be the default for every single person. Once you are dead you are no longer bothered by anything, and any yuck factor you may have is in my mind far outweighed by the vital need transplant patients have.

    I understand maybe not collecting outside features, like eyes, because of the anguish it would cause relatives who wish to bury the body. However I think that you can bury someone with dignity without their kidney. People often fear that if organ donation became the standard for everyone then there would be a risk of doctors allowing people with healthy organs to die in order to harvest their organs. This fear has thus far failed to be backed by any evidence of it happening. There’s no evidence that people who list themselves as willing to donate are more likely to die in the hospital than those who do not. I’m fortunate enough to live in the number 1 country for organ donations and the most noticable thing about it is the profound trust most citizens have in the agencies and doctors involved in organ donations.

    Donate blood today. Donate marrow someday. Donate organs when you die. Even if you do nothing else, just by doing that you will have contributed to saving many lives.

    • Drakk

       The only coherent argument I’ve heard against it comes from an ownership perspective – if you can decide what happens to your possessions after you die in the form of a will, why should you not have that same choice with your body?

      Of course my immediate reaction is that people benefit tangibly from receiving your possessions, whereas keeping your body whole only benefits those who desire that it be such. You don’t count, since you’re dead. Other people’s opinions in this case I think hardly matter – since they don’t get to decide what you put in your will. Personally I’m in favour of opt-out systems.

      I suppose I could see a reason for not wanting to donate if you had some other specific procedure you wanted done, like being cryo frozen in the hope of being woken up later, or if you wanted to donate your whole body to medical science. Of course, allow that and it becomes difficult to justify disallowing “I want to be buried whole” as a valid reason not to harvest.

      I don’t like being logically inconsistent >_>

  • Dave

    A friend of mines father had an horrific motorbike accident and aftera short time the decision was made that he was brain dead and they turned off the life support machine.  They left the body to settle and returned to the room to find him semi conscious and he made a full recovery.

    I understand that this is massively the exception rather than the rule but as a result would never allow doctors to remove organs from my children no matter how sure they were that they were brain dead. 

    I am an atheist so my decision isnt based on faith at all

  • Zoe

    When I turned sixteen last year, I had to get a new health card and had the option of signing up to be an organ donor in the process. Easiest decision I’ve ever made. I don’t particularly care what condition my body is in when I’m buried or cremated; if I’ve saved or even vastly improved a life with an organ that I no longer need, then it’s well worth it. To a certain degree, I understand people who are against it, but for me, it’s as clear cut as can be.

  • http://religionsetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Joshua Zelinsky

    Minor note: Organ donation is believed to be ok by some Orthodox Jews, although there are some complicating cases. For technical reasons, heart transplants are more problematic than other forms of transplants since many Orthodox Jews believe that whether one is living is determined by whether one has a functioning heart. There is an organization which tries to encourage Orthodox Jews to donate – The  Halachic Organ Donors Society - http://www.hods.org/ . At least in the US they’ve had a fair bit of success in the more moderate end of Orthodoxy. 

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

    There’s a marrow donation procedure which doesn’t involve marrow–you take a drug which boosts stem-cell production (in effect) and they remove them via pheresis.

    By the way, there’s a version of this already in place (I believe) in the US–living kidney donors whose remaining kidney fails get elevated status on the kidney recipient list.

    I’m a blood donor, on the marrow registry, a signed organ donor and the surviving spouse of a triple transplant recipient.  Damn betcha they can have my organs when I don’t need ‘em anymore.

    • http://www.facebook.com/people/Chris-Leithiser/593361421 Chris Leithiser

      I got notified two years ago that I was a potential marrow match–way cool– but they decided not to go with me (never found out why,  but perhaps they had a younger donor available.)

  • Mairianna

    My sister passed away after suffering over 60 years with Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis.  Her bones were all brittle, her neck was fused, she had artificial joints in her arms and legs.  She had survived way longer than any doctors has foreseen in the 1950s when she was give experimental treatments like gold shots and aspirin and who knows what other untested drugs (after all this was the pre-informed consent era of clinical trials medicine).  She was going to donate her body to science and I thought that was the greatest gift she could give mankind and others suffering with RA;  but alas, the religion won over and she decided to do the traditional Catholic burial. 

  • Anonymous

    “The atheist has no basis to object to organ donation.”
    I object to it, I find it creepy. I don’t want someone else’s organs and I don’t want mine to go to anybody else.

    • Anonymous

       Then maybe the statement should be ammended to “The atheist has no rational basis to object to organ donation”. Atheists obviously have the capacity to be irrational, they just lack a systematically irrational dogma.

    • Bonnie Taylor

       You absolutely have the right to do as you wish with your posthumous parts! Atheists are supposed to be all about people rights and autonomy and “choice”. If you don’t want to donate organs that is perfectly acceptable.

      Think about it people: Would you like to have your body dragged through the streets, kicked, maimed, spit on, dismembered, etc.? It’s offensive on a gut level to you, even though you’d be dead and technically not present.

      If CanadianNihilist has a gut, offensive reaction to the idea of organ donation, that is his/her right. She/He also has the opportunity to educate him/herself about it, to see if his/her assumptions are right.

      I used to be pro-choice. Then I read some stuff that made me anti-abortion. Then I had some life experiences that made me learn some more and now I’m pro-choice again. Never in that time was I irrational; I was just making decisions based on the information I had at the time.

      • HA2

         Well, having the right to do it either way doesn’t automatically mean both choices are acceptable. There are plenty of very unacceptable choices that, nevertheless, people have a right to make.

        Would I like to have my body dragged through the streets, maimed, dismembered, etc? Well, IF IT WOULD SAVE SOMEONE’S LIFE, yes. For no reason than to humiliate my family? No, of course not.

    • Michael

      After much consideration I hedged my bets.

      I’m not registered as an organ donor but I do carry the card. I have until I die to get rid of it. When I’m laying in a pool of blood, if it matters that much to me, I’ll find the strength to snap it in two.

      It seemed the rational choice.

  • Pablo Vasques Bravo-Villalba

    I signed up for marrow donation. It made me feel all fuzzy inside. I know the chances of compatibility are very slim, but the more people register as donors, the higher the chances of finding a compatible marrow.  =)

  • Joy Morris

    I hope in addition to signing the donor card everyone who is pro donation has told their next of kin of their wish.  In the end it is your next of kin who decides what happens to your body and your organs.

  • FSq

    I am a proud organ and body donor. Once I am gone, use all my body’s bits and pieces and help someone else. No rational person should do otherwise. I mean you are dead, and your body is just a meat sack; let people who need the tissues/organs/eyes get them. 

  • Reginald Jooald

    Thanks for the idea, Hemant. I just signed up for the Canadian marrow registry. I’m already an organ donor, I hadn’t thought of marrow donation though.

  • http://www.facebook.com/AnonymousBoy Larry Meredith

    I’m an organ donor myself, but I would not favor a policy of automatic donor status with opt-out option. What happens to your body should ultimately be your choice, in life and in death. Having your organs removed, preserved and used without permission is a disturbing invasion of human rights. Nobody should be taking and using your body for anything without consent. Silence is not consent.

  • Kristen

    I’m on the marrow donation list and have the “Be the one” card in my wallet. I’m also an organ donor and my next of kin all know it. 

  • Linda Edwards

    Perhaps this will stop ‘transplant tourism’. When I lived in China a few years ago, I visited some Israelis in a hospital in Shanghai who were all waiting for organs. I was told the organs were to come from car crash victims etc, but the BBC reported that they generally come from executed prisoners (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/4921116.stm).
    I don’t know what the situation is like in China now, but I know there were some hospitals in China making millions of dollars out of transplant tourism at the expensive of its prisoners’ lives. If Israel makes it easier for people to donate organs, hopefully there’ll be less demand for Chinese organs from one less country.


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