This is a post with me thinking outloud. I fully accept the Church’s teachings about the dignity of the human body. Donation of an organ is seen as a selfless and loving act; however, the Church would frown upon any commercialization of organs for transplant or research. It is, nevertheless, a very complex issue with many branching questions.
The recent news article that inspired this reflection:
AP NEWS — Dutch reality show that claims to be trying to draw attention to a shortage of organ donors said Tuesday it would go ahead with a program in which a terminally ill woman will choose a contestant to receive one of her kidneys. The program, “Big Donor Show,” has been attacked as unethical and tasteless. At least one member of the Dutch parliament plans to ask the government to block Friday’s broadcast.
“We know that this program is super controversial and some people will think it’s tasteless, but we think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless: waiting for an organ is just like playing the lottery,” Laurens Drillich, chairman of the BNN network, said in a statement. She said waiting lists in the Netherlands are more than four years long and 200 patients die annually for lack of a donor.
Here is an addendum added on June 2, 2007, HOAX!!!:
A Dutch TV contest that purported to show a dying woman choose a patient to receive her kidneys was a hoax. The “donor” in the show was in fact an actress – though the three people vying for an organ were real patients in need of a kidney transplant. The three knew that The Big Donor Show, which aired on Friday, was not real. The producers say it was made to highlight the shortage of Dutch donors. Before the hoax was revealed, the show had attracted widespread criticism.
This issue of selling, buying, or winning human organs has many moral wrinkles. Do you recall the Monty Python skit where a person is asked to become an organ donor? No sooner is the contract signed, that the client is surprised to find out that the contract means they can extract the organ, now! It was funny back in the 1960’s. Today, it has become the nightmare reality.
Despite our revulsion toward it, take this scenario:
Jill is dying from an incurable illness. Her husband is disabled and she has five needy children at home. Because of the type of illness, most of her organs are in good shape and in high demand. She loves her family very much and wants the best for them. Although she will not be around to see them grow up, she desperately wants to do something to help keep them together and to provide for them. She had even dreamed that a few of them might go to college and have options that she never had. A representative from a wealthy benefactor comes and offers her hundreds of thousands of dollars for her body parts: heart, lungs, liver and kidneys. Even the corneas are thrown into the deal. Since she will be dead anyway, and will no longer need them, should she not be given the opportunity to sell her organs and provide for her family after she is gone?
What is the alternative? If she signs a regular donor card, she will get no reimbursement for her organs, although the doctors and hospitals will make a great deal from their various fees and for professional services. One way or the other, someone is going to financially benefit from the organs; as their rightful owner, indeed, as a part of herself, why should she be the only one excluded?
Should there be a significant distinction between selling the organs of the living and of the dead?
If organs should go to the highest bidder instead of to those on transplant waiting lists, would this not force prices up and discriminate against the poor?
Does the buying and selling of body parts reduce the body to a commodity?
Would poor people be unreasonably tempted to sell organs like a kidney or piece of a liver which they might later need?
Regarding the living, are not such practices too great a health risk?
Does this not open people up to intimidation whereby viable sick people might be allowed to die in order to get their organs?
Does not the buying and selling of body parts reinforce a “separatist” mentality toward the human body/soul connection instead of seeing the body as an expression of the whole human person?
Why is it that I can give away my kidney for free but I cannot sell it for money? Even if the idea is repugnant to us, what if you needed that kidney or would die? Or, maybe it would be your mother, or a sibling, or your own child? What seemed so wrong before, does it still seem wrong? Such an issue should not be judged solely on feelings, but it is hard not to get emotional about dying and giving away pieces of yourself.
Did you see the movie called JOHN Q where Denzel Washington played a distraught father whose son needed a heart transplant? He has no insurance and sees no hope for saving his child. Entering the hospital he takes hostages and demands that the doctor save his son. He decides that he will give his son his own heart. Getting the doctor to agree, he takes his gun and prepares to shoot himself in the head. It is a powerful film touching upon some of the themes here.
Few of us, except maybe for the Jehovah Witness, would object to the donation of organs to those who need them. The late Pope John Paul II said back in June of 1991:
Above all, this form of treatment is inseparable from a human act of donation. In effect, transplantation presupposes a prior, explicit, free and conscious decision on the part of the donor or of someone who legitimately represents the donor, generally the closest relatives. It is a decision to offer, without reward, a part of one’s own body for the health and well-being of another person. In this sense, the medical action of transplantation makes possible the donor’s act of self-giving, that sincere gift of self which expresses our constitutive calling to love and communion.
Love, communion, solidarity, and absolute respect for the dignity of the human person constitute the only legitimate context of organ transplantation. It is essential not to ignore the moral and spiritual values which come into play when individuals, while observing the ethical norms which guarantee the dignity of the human person and bring it to perfection, freely and consciously decide to give a part of themselves, a part of their own body, in order to save the life of another human being.
Yes, it can be a beautiful self-donation and sign of love.
Is the selling of organs becoming part of that slippery slope from contraception and abortion? DNA studies and gene manipulation may allow for designer children while defective models can be terminated. Embryos are harvested and frozen and discarded. Sometimes they are even fought over in wills or as items in a divorce settlement. The body is seen as something outside of ourselves that we can exploit and change. We can eradicate fertility for the pleasure of the body. A woman can argue, “It is my body,” and destroy her child in the womb. The body, both that of the woman and mother, as well as that of the child, are reduced to things. The pornography business already counts upon our appreciation of the body, especially female bodies, as a commodity to buy and sell for purposes of lust. Our fantasies make bodies interchangeable and heads do not matter, the person does not matter. We can change our bodies with the help of plastic surgeons and even go as far as sex-change operations. Michael Jackson used his face as a plaything, and now he has cartoon eyes, a bozo smile and a plastic nose. Treating the body as a commodity or thing has consequences. Under President Clinton, the NIH and other institutions bought and sold body parts, principally from aborted children, from glossy catalogues that were mailed out to doctors, hospitals and medical schools. Famous, important and rich people often bypass transplant donation lists, going immediately to the top and getting the life-saving surgery and spare-part. No connection is made afterwards with the new wing to the hospital or the multi-million dollar research project sponsored by the grateful recipient. Meanwhile a poor African-American janitor dies because the heart or kidney for which he waited went to someone else.
Does anyone remember a book and movie from many years ago called COMA? Comatose people were suspended from a roof by cables connected to the large bones of the body. This prevented bedsores and allowed for the long-term storage of such patients. Little did anyone know that behind the scenes, unethical doctors were exploiting these patients for the body parts. The idea was gruesome and unthinkable, but no more. I see a whole new industry on the horizon. There will be lawyers who will specialize on contracts to sell, buy and acquire body parts for their clients. Human organs will be grown in animal hybrids, pushing the boundary regarding what is human and what is not. Camps will be operated in Third World Countries where people’s organs will be harvested. I recall a case a few years ago where a man was kidnapped and awoke on the street with one of his kidneys removed. Such abductions and extractions will become common place as the price for organs skyrocket in an older population.
Much has been said about the exploitation of the poor and now the sick, but what about the young and the mentally challenged. There was a case not too long ago where a couple had a second child in order to have a transplant to save the older one. One could also feign a botched partial-birth abortion (infanticide) and deliver a brain-dead child that would live just long enough for organ harvesting. Retarded people could not give consent to such donations and yet how much do you want to bet that they will be the first to be sliced and diced.
It is unethical to force people to donate body parts, but we all know that desperation and unchecked greed can get quickly around that. A dictatorship might require its citizens to donate organs and body parts, both while living and when dead.
Women have sold their hair for centuries. There are already people who legally sell their blood. I read about one guy whose blood is so rare that he is able to make a living from the few pints he donates each month. Certainly it is an element of the body that regenerates itself, but still, he is selling something of himself. I recall reading about obese people who after having gastric bypass lose hundreds of pounds and need surgery to remove excess skin. This skin is now proving valuable for research and for use by burn victims. But, should such a person sell his skin? What about criminals and people on death row? Can they donate organs and if so does this not create a conflict whereby the state might be more inclined to execute people when the organs have monetary value or are intended for some important personage?
My thoughts about all this just ramble on and on. I have nightmares of a Wheel of Fortune or Price is Right type game show wherein a spin of a wheel will bring wellbeing to some, a fortune to others, and dissection to losers.