The Morality of Human Organ Donation

Discussions on the ethical acceptability of organ donation and transplantation preceded the intensified pace of development of these medical procedures around the 1950's, and continue until today. This issue of Documentation Service presents an overview of Church teachings regarding issues related to organ donation.

Two Addresses of His Holiness, Pope John Paul II, serve as a foundation for the rest of the articles. The Holy Father emphasizes that any organ donation should be an expression of self-giving love that saves another person's life, a reflection of the Lord's supreme act of love in his death and resurrection. Human dignity should always be safeguarded both in organ transplantations, and in experiments that help perfect the techniques of transplantations especially by ensuring the donors' free and informed consent, the non-commercialization of human organs, the assurance that donors of vital organs have truly died before organ explantation, looking for other means of organ replacement (such as prosthetics and adult stem cells, but not cloning and the use of embryonic stem cells), and non-discriminatory and non-utilitarian criteria for organ allocation. These principles presented by Pope John Paul II summarize the status questionis of the Church teachings on organ donation.

The other Church documents contained in this issue further explain the points raised in the two aforementioned Papal Addresses, and include more technical information. The selected numbers from the Catechism of the Catholic Church discuss research with human beings in general, as a starting point for the discussion on transplants. The excerpts from the Pontifical Council for Health Pastoral Care's document discuss among other things the types of transplants, possible sources of organs, respect for the donor, and which organs may or may not be transplanted. The excerpt from Pontifical Academy for Life's document on the other hand focuses on the ethics of xenotransplants, that is, transplants of animal organs to humans.

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of the Philippines' statement denounces the commercialization of human organs. Such a practice affronts human dignity, espe­cially of the poor who get exploited as they decide to sell their organs. Society should fi nd acceptable ways to make organs more available, and help the poor in other ways.

The remaining articles offer additional reflections on these topics. John Kleinsman's position paper outlines the Catholic moral discussions on transplants in the past half century. An article from donorcare.org presents a history of organ and tissue transplantation, and of the complexity of related issues in the field of medi­cine, law, ethics and organ allocation. Fr. William Saunders discusses different sources of organs—from animals, aborted children, in vitro fertilization, cloning, organ sale, etc.—and reminds readers that not everything that is technologically possible is morally acceptable. The article from Lay Witness magazine discusses why the Catholic Church encourages organ donation, which should contribute to a culture of life and reject the culture of death. Rev. Larry Hostetter's article focuses on issues regarding organ donation after death.

It is earnestly hoped that organs or their artificial replacements will be more available for transplants in the future. But while they are still scarce, difficult ethical questions will continue to be raised. This issue of Documentation Service provides the reader with the basic principles and facts related to transplantation, to more easily understand the complex discussions involved, and perhaps personally contrib­ute to the spread of the culture of life in a very specific area, that of organ donation.