Organ Donation – Second Thoughts About Body Parts

Gilbert Meilaender, a professor of theology at Valparaiso University, an independent Lutheran liberal arts university, has written a thought provoking essay on organ donation, title, Second Thoughts About Body Parts. (Click on title to read the essay.)1

Gilbert does not definitely rule out organ donation from brain dead donors but his comments suggest that he struggles with the concept and gives a number of cautions about proceeding down this path. He expresses understanding about the struggle that Christians go through who are faced with a loved on who will die without an organ transplant (see p100 or the last paragraph in this summary.) On the whole, his comments seem to be weighted against taking organs form living bodies.

He cautions against a growing tendency to

regard our bodies simply as collections of organs potentially useful to others (and available whenever our true inner self chooses to give them).

He says that if we do this

we are in danger of losing any close connection between body and soul. That connection has always been affirmed in Christian thought…We are regularly tempted to suppose the ‘real’ person transcends the body.

Although Gilbert does not explicitly refer to it, his thoughts provide a useful perspective when considering personhood. Regarding the body as a collection of organs potentially useful to others will have an impact on ones approach to end of life organ donation.

He looks at the historical development of the definition of brain death. He says that

the concept of brain death remains conceptually and experientially puzzling….It permits transplant surgeons to retrieve organs of a neurologically dead person while…circulation of oxygenated blood sustains the vitality of those organs in the ‘corpse.’…even if we agree that irreversible loss of whole brain function established the person was dead, we would be reluctant to bury a corpse until its heart had ceased to beat.

With respect to the concept of brain death being motivated by a wish to obtain organs for transplant, he says, “suspicions may not have been entirely groundless>” He then describes society’s progress down the slippery slope.

This is the sort of slippery slope we stand on if we permit ourselves to believe that ours is the godlike responsibility to bring good out of every human tragedy….moreover, we will gradually learn to think of ourselves and others not a living beings whose bodies have their own unity and integrity but as ‘ensembles of parts…to be given away or taken or –worst of all–sold. We are on the way to seeing ourselves, in Paul Ramsey’s arresting phrase, as ‘a useful precadaver.’ That I do not exaggerate can be seen from procedures for procuring organs for transplant from what are called “non-heart-beating cadavers.

He raises the question of linking active euthanasia with organ donation. (From a utilitarian point of view, this makes sense. If someone want to end their life, why not use the organs for someone who wants to continue to live?) He describes how it is not a large step to move on to linking active euthanasia with organ donation.

Having started down the highway of transplantation, we seem unable to find any exit ramp as we press toward a vision of humanity in which everyone becomes “a useful precadaver..”


1. Gilbert Meilaender’s essay can also be found as chapter titled, “Gifts of the Body: Organ Donation.” in his book titled, “Bioethics: A Primer for Christians”, W.B Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI, 2005, 2nd ed.

Or on the web at



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