The dark side of organ transplants

A friend of ours has decided to try and make more people aware of organ transplants.  In particular, we are trying to get people to sign up for organ donor cards.  There are very few situations where it is possible to "harvest" an organ.  The "donor" has to be dead, but still intact enough to keep their organs temporarily alive.  Current medical technology has found that brain stem death meets these requirements.  No one has ever recovered from brain stem death.  The brain stem usually becomes swollen, cuts off its own circulation, ceases to function, and then proceeds to liquify.   The body can still pump blood and breath for up to two days in this state, but eventually, all of the organs shutdown.  People who sign donor cards are telling their families that if they suffer from brain stem death, then their organs should be donated to those in need.

Sorry for the graphic description.  This is not an easy topic.   My friend and I have been trying to our local Rabbi to support organ donor cards.  He is opposed because "Israeli doctors are untrustworthy to determine time of death."   Instead, I wish he would try and understand the complex issue and be prepared to help people on either side of the transplant.

I recently heard of a case in the United States where the Rabbi and his wife were clearly out of touch with the families needs and with the current religious approaches.  Here is the letter (edited to maintain privacy) that the family wrote to the Rabbi after the fact.   They did donate the child's organs and thereby saved at leave five lives!

Dear Rabbi ... and Rebbitzen ...,

We would like to thank you for attempting to comfort us during our difficult time following the horrific car accident involving my husband and our beautiful son A.  

However, I would like to share with you that your efforts to dissuade us from donating our beloved son A's Z"L organs was emotionally and halachically inappropriate.

You learned that A had been declared brain dead by the pedoneurosurgeons at the ... Hospital. You knew that we wanted to donate A's organs and this act of saving lives would have brought us emotional comfort. Knowing this, you should have told us that although you disagree, there is major Ashkenazi and Sephardic rabbinic support accepting brain-stem death and supporting organ donation, such as by Rav Ovadiah Yosef and Rav Zalman Nechemia Goldberg and institutional support from the Chief Rabbinate of Israel

But instead, you and your wife ... repeatedly told me that, as long as his heart was beating (albeit by drugs and machines), his "nishamah" was still in his body. You should have supported our emotional state by supplying us with legitimate halachic positions that would support our wishes. 

Instead you caused us anguish and heartache. 

I urge you to learn more about the issue of brain-stem death and organ donation by going to the website of the Halachic Organ Donor Society ( . The next time you are in such circumstances please remember that there are different voices within Orthodox halacha and that should be presented to the family.

... and ... ...

Please talk to your local Rabbinical Authority.  It is my personal belief that the Rabbi is a teacher and leader, but not an authority figure.  It is up to each and every one of us to live our lives according to our best understanding of God's will.  If you give up your right to decide, then you have turned yourself into a puppet and slave.  As the band Rush sang "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice".  Choose life.  A dead person is a tragedy.  Saving a persons life is a miracle.  I prefer miracles to tragedies any day.


SuperRaizy said…
You raise an important issue, one that more people should know about. I am including this post in this week's edition of Haveil Havalim.
SuperRaizy said…
You raise an important issue, one that more people should know about. I am including this post in this week's edition of Haveil Havalim.
When I first read about your son, it highlighted this issue for me.

I wrote about Organ Donation here
Peter said…
A fascinating article and one that is sure to be controversial. The potential discussion topics range from the tragedy of losing a son, the merits of organ donation, a family getting direction from their Rav and not accepting it, or even the appropriateness of giving feedback to the Rav to tell him that they thought he was wrong and out of touch.

My take is on the family doing what they felt was right. Not to be disrespectful to the rabbinic community as a whole but I agree with this family that sometimes a person still needs to do what they believe is proper. I always hope Hashem understands our intentions whether we were, in a someone else's opinion, right or wrong.

My condolences to the family on their loss. They also deserve a Yasher Koach for helping save the lifes of others. I am not sure I could do the same in a similar situation, god forbid, but I greatly respect those that do.

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