The prospect of having your organs harvested within moments of your death isn’t a particularly pleasant thought, so it’s a hardly a surprise that conversations about organ donation don’t crop up regularly around the dinner table. It is normal and natural to become preoccupied in the daily minutiae of life and I think most people would be concerned if ideas of death frequented your thoughts. However human nature is such that our responsibilities as members of society can often be disregarded in favour of our responsibilities to ourselves. Considering organ donation is therefore challenging for two reasons: (1) you need to think about dying and (2) you need to think selflessly.
I am a fierce advocate of organ donation for many reasons, a few of which I’ll touch on here. Trying to acknowledge all the moral, ethical, religious, scientific and philosophical arguments in support of or against organ donation would however take far too long, so instead my focus will be on a statistic that fits in better with what I understand:
“66% of Black, Asian and some Ethnic Minority (BAEM) communities living in the UK refuse to give permission for their loved ones organs to be donated compared to 43% of the rest of the population.”
This is fairly logical if you take organ donation to be a Western concept. In first world countries, where access to healthcare is presumed rather than fortuitous, organ or tissue transplants are within the realm of possibility for patients in whom other treatment options have failed. In less developed healthcare systems however, diagnosing the severity of a disease and assessing a patient’s prognosis are not as easily achievable and opportunities for transplantation are as rare as surgical resources; hence those of BAEM nationalities are less likely to have previously encountered organ donation. Indeed a lack of knowledge about something so ‘unnatural’ would possibly inspire fear rather than altruism and thus, this statistic can in part be explained.
The diversity of religions within BAEM communities may also account for the lack of enthusiasm towards organ donation. As such surgical techniques are modern revelations, significantly older religions did not specifically address the issue, leaving holy scriptures open to interpretation. The idea that your material body is merely a vessel for the immortal soul applies in both Sikhism and Hinduism, as does the notion of service to others; both of which strongly support organ donation. Buddhism states that whilst great care should be given to a dying person, if it is that person’s wish to relieve someone else’s suffering, there is no injunction against organ donation. It is less clear in Islam, as the human body is seen as inviolable both in life and in death; however the idea that ‘necessities override prohibition’ (al-darurat tubih al-mahzurat) may be applied in this sense to promote the preservation of other human lives, if the personal cost is bearable.
Although it is therefore easy to assume that following a natural course of death is what your religion would permit you to do, in some cases scripture arguably suggests that the principles of selfless giving and conservation of life should play a greater role in your deliberation. Donating your organs is ultimately a personal decision but the lack of debate within religious forums, coupled with a wider lack of education on organ donation across the country, has prevented well-informed opinions from being constructed. Organ donation is also far from glamorous and a British preoccupation with propriety has (more often than not) blunted awareness of important issues. I am confident however that if you approached a doctor or religious leader with your questions or concerns, they would be more than willing to help. Not only would you be equipped with the knowledge to formulate your own opinion but you would be in a better position to help others come to a decision they’re also comfortable making.
And why is it that I think organ and tissue donation should be something that everyone considers? I am the first to admit that I can be selfish and spoilt but there is a quote by Muhammad Ali that encompasses the ethos I want to live by: “service to others is the rent you pay for your room here on earth”. I imagine that every person reading this blog, if given the choice, would do what they could to alleviate suffering and help those in need. It is however difficult to think of things in an abstract way; I have seen from my own experiences that it is not until we are forced to deal with disease in the context of someone we love, that we consider how we could prevent others from bearing the same burden. Yet we forget that we are all composed of materials that could save another person’s life. Donating your bone marrow could save a leukaemia patient. Donating your blood could save a mother from fatal complications during childbirth.
Without wading too far into the murky waters of bioethics, there’s also a strong socio-economic argument to be made. I would never condone the Hunger Games-esque organ lottery proposed by the consequentialist John Harris but I do believe that our contributions to society should extend beyond the taxes we pay. We are fortunate enough to live in a time where medical advances have rendered many diseases obsolete and in a society where access to healthcare is free. We do not hesitate to use that which is available to us, so it seems fair to ensure the same is available for others.
Instead of rounding this post off myself, I’ll leave you with a few links so you can draw your own conclusions:
- The NHS Organ Donation Register: www.organdonation.nhs.uk
- The NHS Blood Transfusion Register: www.blood.co.uk
- The NHS Bone Marrow Registry: www.nhsbt.nhs.uk/bonemarrow
On 2nd May 2015, I’ll be taking part in the Isle of Wight Challenge with members of my Bhangra team. We’re fundraising for Delete Blood Cancer UK, a charity which aims to find a bone marrow donor for each person in need of one. Any donations would be much appreciated, no matter how large or small – thank you!