Organ donation is the act of donating one or more bodily organ to another so that it may be used in another's body to increase the risk of survival and/or health of the recipient. Such a transfer is called an organ transplant. Other donations of a similar nature include blood and bone marrow donations.
The human body consists of many organs, and because of our fallen nature these organs are subject to corruption and decay. Diseased organs often lead to death in such afflicted persons. Advances in medical and surgical technology in the past century include the possibility of receiving a healthy organ from another human or even, in some cases, an animal. This is known as organ transplantation. Organ transplants are performed almost worldwide to extend the life of someone who has a diagnosed organ disease. The diseased organ is removed and in its place goes the donated organ. In some cases, multiple organs are transplanted. The organ donor might be one of the following:
- a live volunteer, typically a relative of the recipient;
- a brain dead person with a heart beat but is unable to breathe unassisted;
- someone whose organs were removed and preserved upon death until the need arises;
- an animal such as a pig, often for its heart valves.
A healthy human can donate a kidney, part of the liver, bone marrow, and blood without serious long term health risks. Surgeons can transplant many additional organs, such as the heart and lungs, intestines, pancreas, and corneas, if the donor is already dead. There is a small medical risk on the part of a live donor as it involves surgical removal of the organ or organs.
The lives of many adults and children, boys and girls, young and old, are saved through such a donation. A donor is often hailed in society as a hero; families often come together as life long friends, sharing the common bond of a donated organ. In this way, such a donation is an expression of love and concern and sacrifice for the well being of another child of God.
Historically, the only solid human part that was transplanted in ancient biblical times was the skin (Harakas, S., "Pastoral Guidelines", 2002). Blood transfusions were also performed. As far as I can tell, neither blood transfusions nor skin transplants were condemned by the Church during the Patristic Period. However, transplants of solid organs such as kidneys, livers, and corneas have only existed since the 20th century, and only since the 2nd half of the last century have transplants become more commonplace and safer for both recipient and donor. There are therefore no patristic writings which deal directly with the issue of solid organ donations and organ transplants. However, Father Stanley Harakas and other modern Orthodox theologians have written several statements concerning organ donation, and many of these statements are available on the Internet (see External Links below).
Father Stanley, in particular tells us that we should always respect the body of the donor, whether alive or dead, and we should carefully consider such a decision to donate. The donation should certainly be a voluntary act of love. Blood and marrow donations should not be as great an issue as it involves no surgery and causes no obvious harm.
Fr. Harakas adds the following:
- Such donations are acceptable if the deceased donor had willed such action, or if surviving relatives permit it providing that it was in harmony with the desires of the deceased. Such actions can be approved as an expression of love and if they express the self-determination of the donor. In all cases, respect for the body of the donor should be maintained.
- Organ transplants should never be commercialized nor coerced nor take place without proper consent, nor place in jeopardy the identity of the donor or recipient, such as the use of animal organs. Nor should the death of the donor be hastened in order to harvest organs for transplantation to another person.
As Fr. Harakas implies, a person's organs should never be sold at any price. The body is part of a person, is sanctified through the gift of the Holy Spirit and is a temple of the Holy Spirit, as Fr. Reardon states (see External links section). No one should sell off even part of that temple; the donor should freely give the organ to save a human life. However, it's only fair that the donor should never incur any medical or related expenses as a result of the donation.
- Pastoral Guidelines: Church Positions Regarding the Sanctity of Human Life by Rev. Dr. Stanley S. Harakas (GOARCH)
- Resources in preparation for dying, death and burial (PDF) (p.15) from the St. Nicholas Orthodox Church (OCA) in Portland, Oregon
- The Gift of Life by Laryssa Grinenko (Jun. '02) (Antiochian)
- Ask Abouna (with Fr. Anthony Yazge) regarding organ donation (Antiochian)
- The commerce of human body parts: an Eastern Orthodox response - by Fr. Reardon
- How Much Is A Kidney Worth? by Abraham McLaughlin, Ilene R. Prusher, and Andrew Downie