Organ donation: should we opt-out?

Both major political parties in the UK have now committed to introducing an opt-out policy for organ donation which means, once the details have been sorted out, it is almost certain to become law. What does this mean for Orthodox Christians?

Organs are normally taken from donors whilst the donor's heart is still beating; this procedure is known as heart-beating (HB) donation. It is possible to remove some organs from donors after the donor's heart has stopped beating which is called non-heart-beating (NHB) donation. 

Legally, organs can only be taken from donors who are dead which is why the criterion of 'brain death' was introduced by the transplant lobby. It allows donors to be declared dead even though their hearts are still beating. This approach has come under attack from some doctors and specialists in medical ethics particularly as the symptoms of brain death can be produced by other conditions from which the patient makes a full recovery. 

Because the HB procedure involves the removal of vital organs from living donors (discounting 'brain death' as a criterion of death) we should not receive organs obtained by this method. In addition, as this procedure is widely used in the UK for obtaining organs from donors we must opt-out of the organ transplant register to ensure that our organs are not harvested whilst we are still alive. With the up-coming change in the law, unless we opt-out, we are, in effect, allowing ourselves to be subject to heart-beating donation. At the moment, it is proposed that relatives would be able to veto donation, but how long will this policy last?

Non-heart-beating donation is permitted and our relatives can choose this method after our death. It is still possible to donate organs by this method without being on an donor register as long as we inform our relatives of our wishes. In addition, everyone can, and should, donate blood and we can even donate organs whilst we are alive if a suitable match is found. Donating a kidney is the most common, but some people have donated a lobe of the liver (although this is more dangerous). Of course, not everyone is healthy enough or mentally and spiritually strong enough to donate a vital organ and this needs to be approached with prayer and discussed with our spiritual father.

Our new book The Grace of the Spirit has more details on the ethics and science of organ donation.

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