Organ Donation – Is it like laying down one’s life for a friend?

Before you read this:  I understand, for some, the conclusions drawn in this post may be difficult.   It may be helpful to first read the follow blog posting — What IF You Did Not Know?

Organ transplantation has quite an appeal.  A child dying from congenital heart disease receives a “new” heart.  A mother receives a “new” liver after hers is damaged by a pregnancy related blood clot.  Yet, there are concerns about the retrieval of vital organs.  Vital organs must be taken from living bodies that, as a result, die.  Most are taken from people declared brain dead.  But even this has concerns.[1]  Is there a way for vital organ transplantation to proceed that does not involve the taking of life?

Recently a friend of mine suggested,

Christians may consider donating vital organs to others in need, even when this may hasten his/her death.  Cannot this this be like laying down one’s life for another, as seen in John 15:13, where Jesus says, “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends.”

To what extent does “laying down one’s life” solve the dilemma of vital organ transplantation?

Until now we have raised concern showing that those declared dead, in order to take out their organs, are not really dead.  My friend takes a new direction.  He suggests that death preceding vital organ removal is not an absolute prerequisite, and bringing about death by removing organs can be acceptable.  Is this true?

Do we not accept this in other circumstances, like a person taking a bullet, or diving in front of a train to save someone else?  These are likely the nearest thing to a selfless act possible.  One is not thinking about death, or reflecting on the worth of their life, when they take a bullet.  With organ donation, there is time to think.  A healthy person, whose life is good is unlikely to choose death and give away a vital organ.

If this hastening of death is allowed, when is it allowed?  Some of us might accept an elderly person, who is near death, choosing to shorten his life to give away vital organs, but what about a 25 year old healthy man?  Can he do the same thing, as long as he is giving his life for another?  Saying “hastening death” rather than “giving up one’s life” suggests that my friend may not accept the plan of the 25 year old.

If it is only acceptable when one is already dying, is this really like laying down one’s life, as Christ did? It appears more like saying, “My life is not worth much anymore.  I might as well give it up and allow someone worth more than me to live.”  Is this an expression of the greatest love referred to in John 15:13?  John Gill, in his commentary, says,

He [Jesus] laid down His life for His enemies,  without any sinister selfish views,  and that freely and voluntarily; whereas among men,  when one man has laid down his life for others,  either they have been very deserving,  or he has been forced to it,  or it has been done with the view of popular applause and vain glory. [Or when he feels he does not have much life left to give.]   (– last sentence added)

Jesus willingly gave His life.  He was not dying when He chose to give His life.  He was very much alive.   If when saying, “Christians may consider donating vital organs to others in need, even when this may hasten his death,” we refer to a man like the 25 year old mentioned above and by  “hasten death” we really mean “results in death,” then I think I can agree with what my friend suggested.  That is, as long as it does not require another person to sin.  Unfortunately, a person can not take out his own organs.  The man’s life must betaken by others.  (The surgical team, the anesthetists, etc)  I’m not sure this can be done without breaking the 6th commandment to not kill?  Did Christ intend to direct a healthy 25 year old to do this?

It is noteworthy that Jesus legs did not have to be broken.  Crucifixion generally leads to suffocation.  The thieves crucified beside Jesus had their legs broken so they could not be used to push and make breathing easier.  This sped up dying.  Jesus did not need his legs broken.  He was already dead. (John 19:31-33)  He gave his life up.  It was not taken from Him in keeping with Jesus’s words recorded in John  10:17-18, “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself.”

In John 15:12 we are commanded to love one another in the way that Jesus Christ loves us.  Then in John 15:13 we are told the amazing extent of Christ’s love.  He laid down His life.  A person might, out of love, be willing to lay down his life to give a vital organ to his loved one.  But in practice this is not likely what Jesus is calling us to.  There are so many ways we can lay down our lives and set our own desires aside for the sake of others.  When we start to hold part of ourselves back, we are to think of Christ giving His entire life, even to the last drop of blood.

There is a form of organ donation that can follow the path of John 15:13.  A person can donate non vital organs like one kidney, part of a liver, or part of a lung.  This involves risking one’s life and potentially  shortening one’s life.  It does not require the specialist who removes the organ to end a life.

At the start I asked, “to what extent does the teaching of John 15:13 solve the vital organ donation dilemma?”  It solves the concern that donor’s lives are killed as a result of organ retrieval.  Instead lives will be laid down.  That is assuming we can get past the killing that is required by the medical teams.  Likely, it will be rare for a person to be willing to lay down their life, and even rarer for it to be done in the selfless way John 15:13 is speaking of.  The demand for organs is large.  The laying down of life out of love will in not solve the demand of society for organs.

In reality,  lives are not being personally willingly laid down.  Instead, more commonly, people are looking at their loved ones in terrible circumstances, like severe brain trauma.  Believing their loved one is near death, and thinking, if they remain alive, they will not have much of a life, hastening death by organ retrieval is seen as a better option.  This is only considering things from the donor’s side.  Should someone waiting for a vital organ be allowed to think that receiving an organ is OK because the donor is giving out of love?  The vast majority of organs that come available are not from people who have laid down their lives to donate their organs as an act of love.

I wonder if the applying of John 15:13 to organ donation  is related to the realization that vital organs can really only be harvested from those are still alive.  Given the appeal of organ transplantation, there is a desire to find a way to morally promote it.  “There must be a Christian way.  What about John 15:13?”


[1] the basis for my conclusion that those declared “brain dead” are not really dead can be found in a number of the postings found HERE.  You can also read more extensive commentary on organ donation and brain death in my book Questioning Medical Technologies.


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