Organ Donation?

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I sometimes am asked my opinion about organ donation.  There seem to be two issues at stake.  The first is that some people are worried about whether Christians may donate organs such as their heart, kidneys, corneas etc to help others with serious illness or disease. The other issue that comes up is that some Christian organisations are twitchy about the increasing move from “opting in” to  organ donation by carrying a card to “opting out” by stating that you do not want your organs donated.

Taking them one by one.  The first issue relates to questions about bodily resurrection.  Christians expect that when Jesus returns, the dead will be physically raised. We will not exist in eternity as mere spirits.  Does this mean that when we are raised that if we have donated organs then we will be missing body parts.  Will there be a scrap over who is entitled to my cornea grafts? 

Well, it is worth remembering that most of us who die before Christ’s return will have been buried or cremated so that our bodies will have been well and truly decomposed.  Furthermore, our cells are constantly being replenished and recycled, so that my body cells today are completely different to those I had 10 years ago and may well contain matter that previously in another form was part of you. Therefore, when we are raised to new life, it’s not that God will reassemble the exact cellular composition of by body from a specific date in time. Rather, I will receive a completely new body that will reflect my earthly appearance. 

For the same reason, it is permissible for Christians to be cremated.  Now, my personal preference is for burial because I believe that this reflect Biblical imagery and does symbolise resurrection hope. However, if out of necessity those responsible when I go decide to have my body cremated, it won’t affect my resurrection hope or even make it harder for God to give me a new body. A person who has donated body parts therefore will find themselves in no different a position to someone who has lost a limb or organ through injury or ill health in their life.  They will receive a new and whole body.

Positively, I believe that organ donation is a good thing.  I have personally benefited.  Because people were willing to donate their corneas, my eyesight and therefore quality of life and ability to serve Christ with my gifts has been much helped. I would encourage Christians to be willing to donate organs as an act of love to others.

What then about the opt-in/opt-out debate.  As I understand it, those raising objections about the shift are not doing so because they think that organ donation is morally wrong or even debatable.  However, there is a risk with such campaigns that it can give the impression that organ donation is an ethically grey area.

The issue they seem to have is a concern to do with personal autonomy and freedom against autocratic and overbearing government.  If a Government assumes that it is the health service’s automatic right to harvest my organs on death then this may risk sending two messages. The first is that it may suggest that my body belongs to the State, that I only in effect leased it during my earthly life.

The second potential message is that my body doesn’t matter at all.  We might end up with a form of Gnosticism.  Now, it is possible to pay too much attention to the body as though it matters more than anything and the spirit is nothing. We can attempt to cling onto a person through preserving their body.  However, it is also possible to go to the other extreme, treating the body as nothing at all.  We rightly want to give people a dignified burial or cremation because their body was a significant part of who they were and because we look forward to bodily resurrection.

So, I can understand the concerns of those campaigning against moving to an opt out situation.  However, I don’t think we need to be too worried about this.  The “opt-out” system is not saying that the State owns your body or denies your autonomy over it in life and death.  Rather, it is saying that our wishes are presumed. We still have the option to make clear that our wishes are different.

It is important though that legislation and communication on these things makes clear that there is dignity both in life and death.  My experience as a pastor and as a family member of seeing the end of life is that generally, through the medical services, funeral directors, registrars, coroners etc is that such a culture of respect does continue to exist.

However, of greater concern is the way that issues around death and dying, euthanasia and abortion are being handled.  We cannot assume that this respect for the dignity of life is complete or permanent.  So, it is important for Christians to be alert.

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