Mark Miller, C.Ss.R., Ph.D.
Most Catholics today do not have a major problem with the idea of donating their organs should they die unexpectedly and their organs be in donatable condition. However, Catholics seem no more prepared either to fill out their donor cards or talk with their loved ones while healthy than the regular population. Unfortunately, this means that many organs deteriorate before they could be used and that the family must face the possibility of donating in the midst of a tragic death without any prior thought.
Being willing to donate one’s organs after death is justified in our Catholic teaching as an act of charity to someone who is ill and cannot be helped in other ways. Modern technology and drugs have made some organ transplants almost routine. To listen to those who have received donor organs— like Cal Murphy, coach of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers, who received a new heart—one recognizes what a gift is given, literally, the gift of a new lease on life.
I would like to encourage all Catholics to consider the possibility of organ donation, which means that more must be involved than thinking it is a good idea. Most if not all provinces in Canada allow a person to agree to donations by signing the appropriate place on their driver’s license.
However, what is more important is to talk with your loved ones before you sign. Doctors in Canada will not remove organs from a dead person if the family does not agree—even if a properly signed donor card is on hand. Oftentimes, the family has its own reasons for not agreeing. The trauma of death, a macabre sense of abandoning the newly dead person and ‘harvesting’ the organs, occasionally poor requesting skills by medical staff—there are many reasons which may surface in a crisis. Delay, unfortunately, can mean that the organs are lost forever.
By first talking with your loved ones, many issues can be raised and dealt with before a crisis arises. First, the possibility of doing some good in the midst of a tragedy could be agreed to by the family. Second, uncertainties can be talked over. For example, in a family I met I recall the husband shuddering at the very thought of organ removal. We had a long talk about the source of this horror and came to the surprising conclusion that a fear of not really being dead was at the root of it.
It is important to emphasize that being willing to donate your organs is not an obligation. If you have any reservations, try to understand these qualms and do not sign the donor card until you are at peace with yourself. And remember, it is your decision! Again, I recall one wife who agreed to sign her card at her husband’s insistence and then had nightmares. She was not ready and she needed to cancel her signature in order to figure out what the problem was. She had a lot of things to work out concerning death. Ironically, because of her honesty in facing her fears, she learned a new appreciation of life through an acceptance of death. These are not moral issues, but psychological or emotional ones. They are quite real and need to be faced.
Third, some of our morbidity when talking about death will disappear as we face the reality of preparing for it. (This is one reason, I contend, for preparing an advance care directive—a couple or a family has to talk about the individual’s own wishes and attitudes before a crisis.) At talks that I have given on death and dying, I invariably run up against fears that loved ones don’t want to talk about their own dying because such talk is morbid. Actually, I suspect that it is just too close to home. We are reminded of our mortality and it does no good to pretend we will live forever.
Finally, I believe that a couple or a family that talks about organ donation can truly see it as an act of faith. We do not know our appointed hour. Jesus told us to watch and pray, that is, be always ready. Part of that readiness is our love and concern for others. And that should be no less true for us at the time of death than while we live.
There is a growing need for organs today. Waiting lists for transplants continue to grow and many people have to put up with being very sick for lack of available organs or undergo treatments, like renal dialysis, which can restrict one’s life rather considerably. If you would be prepared to receive a new organ because one of your essential organs were failing and imperiling your life, you need also to think about offering your organs should the occasion arise.
(There are quite a few ethical issues around organ transplants. Over the next two columns, I will review some of them: Living donors, allocation of scarce organs, cost, profiteering and abuse, and reasons for refusing a transplant.)