Do organ donation and abortion have something in common? This may seem like an odd question. But the question does arise when one considers both organ donation and abortion in light of personhood or in light of what it means to be a person.
Many Christians reject abortion from the point of conception, citing conception as the beginning of a person’s life. Some pro-abortion people accept abortion in the early stages of pregnancy claiming that the embryo/fetus in early pregnancy is not yet a person. The more extreme view is that to be a person one has to be able to think. Since a fetus is not able to express thought, some would say that a fetus is not a person and abortion is justified at any stage. A less extreme view is that to be a person one needs brain activity, but not necessarily thinking. They would say that embryos and early fetuses that have not yet developed brains and that they would, thus, not yet be considered persons, could therefore be, justly, aborted. Defining personhood in terms of brain activity, excludes the very young from the protection of persons.
Vital organ donation is accepted by many as long as the person, who is the donor, is first declared brain dead. They connect personhood to the brain and say that if the brain is “dead” then the person is dead. Brain death is generally declared when applied tests fail to show that the brain is controlling body functions, leading to the conclusion that the brain is not functioning. The cause of absent brain function needs to be irreversible, as there are reversible causes of absent brain function, such as general anesthesia.
Like the situation where abortion is justified due to absence of brain function, vital organ donation from a “brain dead” person is justified by an absence of brain function. It is this that organ donation and abortion have in common.
There are, of course, differences. The embryo, with no brain activity, has the potential for brain activity. One might say that brain activity is inherent even in the fertilized egg. The person who has a loss of brain function, that is truly irreversible will not have a restoration of function and will progress to full, neurologic-cardio-respiratory death. But the question still remains, when can we say that they are fully dead?
The the intrinsic value or personhood of “brainless” embryos raises the following question, If a person’s brain does not seem to be functioning, while the body is not yet dead, should the intrinsic value or personhood of the person be denied?.
Further discussion about the definition of brain death can be found in blog entry titled, Organ Donation – Are Brain Dead Really Dead?