Organ Donations - Part 1

FR. WILLIAM SAUNDERS

Recently, my pastor suggested to his parishioners that they should consider donating their organs for medical usage and for the benefit of other human beings. What is the Magisterium's teaching on the subject of organ donations?

The Catechism teaches, "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 risks 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 other persons" (No. 2296). To better understand this teaching, let's take it one step at a time. Keep in mind that the issue was first clearly addressed by Pope Pius XII in the 1950s, and then has been refined with the advances in this field of medicine.

First, a distinction is made between transplanting organs (including tissue) from a dead person to a living person, versus transplanting organs (including tissue) from a living person to another living person. In the first instance, when the organ donor is a dead person, no moral concern arises. Pope Pius XII taught, "A person may will to dispose of his body and to destine it to ends that are useful, morally irreproachable and even noble, among them the desire to aid the sick and suffering. One may make a decision of this nature with respect to his own body with full realization of the reverence which is due it . . . This decision should not be condemned but positively justified" ("Allocution to a Group of Eye Specialists," May 14, 1956). Basically, if the organs of a deceased person, such as a kidney or a heart, can help save the life of a living person, then such a transplant is morally good and even praiseworthy. Note that the donor must give his free and informed consent prior to his death, or his next of kin must do so at the time of their relative's death.

One caution needs to be made: The success of an organ transplant significantly depends upon the freshness of the organ, meaning that the transplant procedure takes place as soon as possible after the donor has died. With the advances in transplantation technology, organs are increasingly in demand. Nevertheless, the moral criterion demands that the donor must be dead before his organs are used for transplantation; moreover, the donor must not be declared dead prematurely or his death hastened just to utilize his organs. To avoid a conflict of interest, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act requires that "The time of death be determined by the physician who attends the donor at his death, or, if none, the physician who certifies the death. This physician shall not participate in the procedures for removal or transplanting a part" (Section 7(b)). While this caution does not impact upon the morality of organ transplantation per se, the dignity of the dying person must be preserved, and to hasten his death or to terminate his life to acquire organs for transplant is immoral.

Several other issues have emerged which impact upon the morality of a transplant procedure: One issue is the use of organs or tissues from aborted children (such as those murdered through partial birth abortion procedures). A lucrative organ "harvesting" industry is developing which utilizes the organs and tissues of aborted fetuses. A critical point here is that these abortions are performed with the intention of utilizing the organs or tissues of the infant, and in direct conjunction with a particular recipient in mind.

Another issue is when a child is conceived naturally or through in vitro fertilization to obtain the best genetic match, and then born or even aborted simply for organs or tissues. For example, recently a couple conceived a child for the sole purpose of being a bone marrow donor for another sibling suffering from leukemia; while the conceived child was determined to be a good match while still in the womb and was born, one must wonder if the child would have been aborted if he had not been a good match. To participate in an abortion to obtain organs, to conceive a child for organs, or to knowingly use organs from aborted fetuses is morally wrong. Nevertheless, to transplant the organs of a deceased person to help another person in need is morally permissible as long a free and informed consent has been given.

 


ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Saunders, Rev. Williams. “Organ Donations (Part 1).” Arlington Catholic Herald.

Reprinted with permission of the Arlington Catholic Herald.

THE AUTHOR

Father William Saunders is dean of the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College and pastor of Queen of Apostles Parish, both in Alexandria, Virginia. The above article is a "Straight Answers" column he wrote for the Arlington Catholic Herald. Father Saunders is also the author of Straight Answers, a book based on 100 of his columns and published by Cathedral Press in Baltimore.

Copyright © 1998 Arlington Catholic Herald




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