Live organ donation

Live organ donation September 26, 2010

If you’re looking for the Monty Python sketch, well I’m afraid to say you’ve come to the wrong blog post. This one’s about the views of the religious on organ donation.

Now, you might assume (as I did) that organ donation might be a particular problem for the religious. After all, if you have someone else’s heart, then are you fully you, or are you partly somebody else? Where is it that ‘you’ reside? It’s a problem that reminds me of that ancient paradox, the Ship of Theseus.

Of course, the common-sense idea is that humans have an ‘essence’ (or soul), which remains constant even though bits come and go. But if the organ brings with it a bit of the dead person’s essence, then the it might turn you into some kind of terrible chimera. It could make you commit suicide or, even more alarming, make French people talk English.

There is also a serious problem here. There’s a shortage of organs in the UK and worldwide, and it’s a problem that’s getting worse. That’s partly an unintended consequence of better road safety – fewer young, healthy people being killed means fewer healthy organs to go round.

It’s a particular problem among ethnic minorities. People of Asian or Afro-Caribbean descent form 8% of the UK population, by 23% of the kidney waiting list. Unfortunately, only 3% of kidney donations come from these ethnic groups.

To try to find out whether religion is contributing to this a problem, the Department of Health funded a series of interviews with religious thought leaders (and also with Naomi Phillips of the British Humanist Association – as the token atheist). They wanted to find out whether religion was a barrier to organ donation.

It turned out that all the holy books are, in fact, silent on the subject:

The texts were written at the time of the gurus… there wasn’t any discussion about it in those times (Dr Indarjit Singh, Network of Sikh Organisations, UK)
There are no explicit references to organ donation in the texts (Malcolm M. Deboo, The Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe Incorporated)

An unfortunate oversight that might make you think that God rather dropped the ball on this one.
Nonetheless, almost everyone they interviewed supported organ donation. What’s more, they almost all said that, although controversial, most of the people in their faith group supported it.

There was a common thread in the rationale they gave for supporting organ donation. Basically, religion encourages people to be generous, and organ donation is a generous act.

That in itself is interesting, because of course letting someone else use something that you have no use for is hardly generous. So maybe they have a lingering concern that bodies should, ideally, be kept whole – in readiness for meeting your maker.

Zoroastrians, on the other hand, have no such problem – once you’re dead, you’re vulture food. But Zoroastrians, too, think that organ donation is a good thing. The lone Zoroastrian they interviewed gave a much more exciting rationale than bland do-gooder generosity:

Zoroastrians consider the concept of death as evil…The purpose of creation in Zoroastrianism is to assist God to defeat evil. Thus Zoroastrians see themselves as warriors of good fighting evil; therefore, they are pro-life and pro-organ donation because by donating their organs another life of a warrior can be extended, who in turn will continue to fight the good battle against evil (Malcolm M. Deboo, The Zoroastrian Trust Funds of Europe Incorporated)

The most divided faith seems to be the Muslims. Muslims interviewed admitted that the issue is controversial, and the lone voice speaking out against organ donation was a Muslim. His objection was based on classic essentialism:

(It is forbidden) firstly because when an organ has been removed from the body it is deemed to be impure. Secondly, because of the honour and dignity that is due to man (Mufti Zubair Butt, Muslim Council of Britain)

All well and good, but the trouble with these interviews is that they seek out the intellectuals from within a faith tradition. Are any of them actually representative of the living religion, as it is practised by the masses? Apparently not, since by and large these thought-leaders condemned their co-believers for their ignorance.

Freed from the burden of theological doctrine, the great unwashed masses probably hold beliefs that are truer to the core, cognitive biases that drive religious beliefs.

As the paper itself points out, that 60% of Muslims in the UK think that their religion outlaws organ donation (other research suggests that, the more religious they are, the more likely they are to oppose it). Orthodox Jews are also likely to think similarly. Of Americans opposed to organ donation, 8% think that it conflicts with their faith. And lack of organ donations from Black Americans has been attributed to religious concerns.

So although religious leaders may think that charity trumps essentialism, their followers are not so sure. They would rather keep all their bits, in readiness for the next life!


Randhawa, G., Brocklehurst, A., Pateman, R., Kinsella, S., & Parry, V. (2010). Religion and Organ Donation: The Views of UK Faith Leaders Journal of Religion and Health DOI: 10.1007/s10943-010-9374-3

Creative Commons License This article by Tom Rees was first published on Epiphenom. It is licensed under Creative Commons.

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