Beating the Organ Donor Taboo

By Elaine Berg

Published June 09, 2006, issue of June 09, 2006.
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More than 400,000 people living in the United States today are organ transplant recipients. These are people who, without the gift of life from others, would not have been given a second chance.

Others are not so fortunate. Despite the improved success rates of transplants, an average of 6,200 people die each year because of an ongoing shortage of donors. Right now, nearly 92,000 patients are on the national organ transplant waiting list. Seventeen of them die every day, and another name is added to the list every 13 minutes.

In Israel, too, there is a critical shortage of organ donors. Four hundred forty-two people were added to the organ transplant waiting list in 2004, and a total of 800 were waiting for hearts, livers, corneas, lungs, pancreases, kidneys or other organs. Ninety Israelis died waiting for donor organs.

Organ donation highlights, perhaps like no other human endeavor, our opportunity to understand and accept death, acknowledge and honor our loved ones and, in one heart-wrenching moment, transform these life-changing experiences into an incredible opportunity to save other lives. And yet time and again, when members of my staff approach a Jewish family in a hospital to discuss organ donation for their deceased loved ones, the answer often heard is that donation is forbidden by Jewish law — an answer with which many religious authorities would disagree. The Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist movements, as well as some brave individual Orthodox rabbis, have firmly endorsed organ donation. There seems to be no hesitation on the part of the Jewish community to partake in the miracle of transplantation when an organ is needed to live. Tragically, however, there seems to be a lack of understanding that the benefit of receiving an organ cannot exist without a commitment to organ donation.

From an ethical perspective, the miracle of organ donation embodies the highest level of mitzvah — what Maimonides characterized as giving anonymously. More broadly, one of today’s leading rabbis, Moshe Tendler, a professor of medical ethics at Yeshiva University, teaches that if it is possible to donate an organ to save a life, it is obligatory to do so — even when it comes to cornea transplantation, as restoring sight is considered to be lifesaving.

“The often repeated query, ‘Is it really permissible to desecrate the dead by removing their organs?’, is answered by the undisputed affirmation that the saving of a life takes precedence over all other ritual concerns,” Tendler wrote in a New York Organ Donor Network publication in 2002. “In truth, it is not a desecration! No greater honor can be bestowed on an individual than that of being a savior of as many as eight lives through donation of heart, liver, kidneys, pancreas, lungs and small intestines.”

Yet even among rabbis who approve of organ donation, I have encountered some whose approval is dependent on whether a deceased Jew’s organs are allocated to fellow Jews. This directive conflicts with the principles of justice and equity that are the basis of the national law governing organ donations, the Uniform Anatomical Gift Act. What’s more, it also engenders animosity in the field of transplantation and jeopardizes goodwill among our communities.

I am no scholar of Judaism, but I did grow up in an Orthodox home and studied in yeshiva for 12 years. Am I wrong in my recollection that to save a life is an important value in Judaism — even if the life is that of a non-Jew? Am I wrong in recalling that justice and ethics do not apply only to Jews, and that the law of the land is the law? Am I wrong in my belief that one of the most basic tenets of Judaism is to make the world a better place — for everyone?

It is high time for all rabbis to embrace organ donation as the embodiment of the highest values in Judaism. The Halachic Organ Donor Society has made great inroads in the Jewish community through grass-roots education and by enlisting more than 120 key Orthodox rabbis to sign its organ donor cards and to address this flagrant injustice of taking but not giving. But there are many more rabbis in New York who have yet to step forward in this regard. They should poll their congregations to identify members who have been touched by transplantation — and then complete the circle by endorsing donation.

Every rabbi, of every denomination, ought to take a leadership role in acknowledging — and then eliminating — Jewish hypocrisy with regard to organ donation. The death of every patient on the organ transplant waiting list is a tragic waste, and it is the time to put an end to the dearth of Jewish donors.

Elaine Berg is president and CEO of the New York Organ Donor Network.

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