HEALTHY DISCUSSION

Does religion oppose organ donation?

Christianity, Islamism and Buddhism among other religions silently but greatly influence the practice of organ donation and transplantation

In Summary

• Medical practitioners involved also hold religious opinions, which may affect their decision making.

• In Islam, violation of a human body, whether dead or alive, is strictly forbidden. 

Organ donation
Organ donation
Image: COURTESY

Unless it be for murder or for spreading mischief in the land it would be as if he slew the whole people: and if any one saved a life, it would be as if he saved the life of the whole people.” Surah Al- Ma’idah, verse 32

 
 

 Donating organs, whether as a living or deceased donor, has the potential to save a life. However, in some religions, “giving away” one's organs is regarded as a religious taboo.

Religion has a big influence on people’s behaviours, and this affects how they react to different matters, including the practice of organ donation and transplantation.

Most of the times, people do not actually know what their religious stance on the practice is, and they end up relying on their own individual perception between themselves and their faith’s supreme being.

This could as well mean there would be as many religious opinions on organ donation and transplantation as there are religious people in the world.

 

Although there is no one religion that formally obliges its followers to donate or refuse to donate organs, different religions hold different views about the same. Christians, for example, view the act of donation as an act of altruism, an act of neighbourly love that is grounded in the salvation message of God’s love.

Whether living or deceased donation, Christians are encouraged to donate, as long as the act does not violate the dignity of the human person.

The Bible teaches that bodies were once dust and shall return to dust. Further, Apostle Paul, who is one of the most celebrated authors of the Bible, having written 13 epistles, writes that our mortal bodies cannot inherit the kingdom of God.

Such teachings, among others, inspire Christians to donate their organs. In fact, many Christians look at it as a way of the continuance of Christian services, and especially if the recipient of the organ is another Christian.

On the other hand, there are those Christians who are reluctant to donate their organs, and this is attributed to their belief in life after death. Their reluctance, therefore, stems from the fact that they do not want to be incomplete when they resurrect.

This then creates a tension between the desire to want to donate, given the fact that altruism is at the heart of Christian faith, and the fear of what lies ahead, given their eschatological view to life.

In Islam, violation of a human body, whether dead or alive, is strictly forbidden. Nonetheless, altruism is a praised principle in Islam, and this goes hand in hand with the Islamic Code of Medical Ethics that stresses the sacredness of human life and the need to preserve it by all means.

These two principles — non-violation of human body and preservation of human life — appear to be somehow in conflict. Because on one end, organ donation can be perceived as a violation of the donor’s body, thus warranting prohibition, whereas the principle of preserving human life allows taking any means necessary to save a life.

 
 

A hadith [collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammed that form a major source of guidance for Muslims] is told of a man who broke the bones of a deceased man in a cemetery and Prophet Muhammed rebuked this act by saying, ‘Breaking the bone of a dead person is equal to breaking it while that person is alive.’ This hadith leads to some Muslims questioning the opening up of a person’s body to remove organs.

The above may lead one to conclude that Islam does not allow the practice of organ donation and transplantation.

But on the contrary, Muslims are encouraged to make donations of organs, and the Islamic legal maxim al-darurat tubih al-mahzurat, which translates to ‘necessities overrule prohibitions’, goes a long way to prove this.

This maxim adds life to the fundamental element of saving life as a supreme aim of the Muslim faith, which is backed by the belief of great reward from Allah.

Buddhists, on the other hand, view life as a continuum. They believe that after the conscious mind and brain processes have slipped into death, the spiritual process continues.

So in their case, death is not regarded as disaster, but merely a change of consciousness. This way, removing organs and transplanting them into another person’s body as a way of preserving life appears to a Buddhist as an act of ego delusion, which may indicate ignorance of one’s spiritual identity.

 

Following their views on death, Buddhist value their ‘wholeness’ after death and would not prefer to be cut open for purposes of organ donation or even organ transplantation. Even though Buddhists do not formally condemn this practice, they do not promote it either.

From the above, it is clear that religion silently but greatly influences the practice of organ donation and transplantation, because even the medical practitioners involved also hold their own religious opinions, which may affect their medical decisionmaking.

Elizabeth is an Advocate of the High Court. Associate at Ibrahim Yakub & Associates Advocates. She is passionate about Medical Law and Ethics most especially the ethics of both living and deceased organ donation and transplantation.