Death and Denial: To Kill for Organs Is Always Wrong

In China, according to the English-language China Daily, more than 65 percent of organs harvested for transplantation are taken from executed criminals.  Americans have viewed with contempt the news reports of mass death row executions in China, purportedly to obtain organs which can be sold for huge profits on the black market.

But is China really alone in its disregard for human life? 

Wesley J. Smith, writing in First Things, exposes Canadian scientists’ efforts to do away with what is called the “dead donor rule.”  That rule has required that a death certificate be signed before a person’s organs can be removed.  Researchers and transplant surgeons, anxious to get their hands on organs while they are fresh and before any deleterious effects resulting from death of the donor, propose a new policy of “informed consent.”  Canadian and Spanish experts acknowledge that some patients may still be alive; but ultimately, they write in the American Journal of Bioethics,

“…what is important for the protection and respect of potential donors is not to have a death certificate signed, but rather to be certain they are beyond suffering and to guarantee that their autonomy is respected.”


The organ shortage has led some proponents of transplants to jump the gun—viewing the human body as a “natural resource” ready for harvest, and redefining “death” as a sociological construct rather than an actual biological event.

That means that patients in a “persistent vegetative state” could be declared dead—even though the PVS state is misdiagnosed over 40% of the time.  (In reality, there are numerous examples of comatose patients who have been determined to be in a PVS state, and who then wake and return to normal or near-normal function.)  Some radical transplantation advocates have even called for organ transplants to be permitted on patients who are slated for execution (a la Communist China) or persons who are contemplating suicide.

This utilitarian approach, which considers human life as a mere “commodity” to be extinguished at will, is one of the ramparts of the Culture of Death.

In 1998 Cardinal Roger Mahony, retired Archbishop of Los Angeles, echoed the words of Winston Churchill, Pope John Paul II, Fyodor Dostoevsky, and President Harry Truman when he said:

“Any society, any nation, is judged on the basis of how it treats its weakest members; the last, the least, the littlest.”

There is a sad consistency in a society which is willing to kill off its youngest members (those in the womb, or anencephalic infants) as well as its oldest or least healthy members (the infirm, the aged, the depressed or mentally impaired).   If Grandpa is in failing health, if his care is very expensive, should we then hasten his demise and sell his organs?

Pope John Paul II acknowledged the nobility of organ transplantation in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae:

[T]he Gospel of life is to be celebrated above all in daily living, which should be filled with self-giving love for others. . . . Over and above such outstanding moments, there is an everyday heroism, made up of gestures of sharing, big or small, which build up an authentic culture of life.
A particularly praiseworthy example of such gestures is the donation of organs, performed in an ethically acceptable manner, with a view to offering a chance of health and even of life itself to the sick who sometimes have no other hope (Evangelium Vitae, no. 86, original emphasis).

Since the time of Pope Pius XII, when technological advances first made organ transplantation a possibility, the Church has explicitly stated that transplants are licit, based upon the principle of fraternal charity, but only when certain requirements are met.  The requirements include:

  • Informed consent, legitimately given by the donor or one who speaks for him.
  • The physical and psychological risks incurred by the donor must be proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. The donor must be aware of these risks and the proportionate good.  (This applies, of course, in the case of donation of an organ, such as a kidney, in which the surgery will not cause the end of life for the donor.)

And the last clear prohibition applies unequivocally to cases in which the donor is not yet deceased:

  • To destroy the healthy functioning or intrinsic beauty of one’s body, even to delay death of another, is morally wrong.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church, in Section 2296, explains:

Organ transplants are not morally acceptable if the donor or those who legitimately speak for him have not given their informed consent.  Organ transplants conform with the moral law and can be meritorious if the physical and psychological dangers and risk incurred by the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient.  It is morally inadmissible directly to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of the other persons.

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