In Salon, Frances Kissling raises an ethically thorny question: Do we treat potential living organ donors fairly? She says the medical community is overly cautious because of the possibility of bribes or rewards for living organ donation. In fact, "Even without incentives, no group of do-gooders is treated with more suspicion by the medical community." The medical community is so cautious that donors have to cover their own medical expenses* for the donation and then insurance provides nothing later for long-term comprehensive health insurance or life and disability insurance. 

She says something telling: 

Transplants are still a little creepy, and the idea of sharing your body with someone else is still science fiction. It's scary.

I think she's touching on something uncomfortable. It’s possible that the whole issue —- not just “rewards” or “incentives”, but the entire idea of giving your body —- is more complicated than we assume. Gilbert Meilaender is my favorite bioethicist and in his profound little book, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians, he reflects on the issue:

Not every gift can properly be given by those who know themselves to be creatures rather than Creator. The body, as the place of personal presence, has its own integrity, which ought to be respected. … Thus, even when we approve donation (of, for example, a kidney) from a living donor, we should retain a lively sense of the moral complexity of such an act. …

But consent is not the only moral issue here, and those concerns should not obscure a larger underlying issue: the integrity of bodily life. If we learn to regard our bodies simply as collections of organs potentially useful to others (and available whenever our true inner self chooses to give them), we are in danger of losing any close connection between the person and the body. That connection has always been affirmed in Christian thought, although it has often been a fragile connection. We are regularly tempted to suppose that the “real” person transcends the body. When we do that, dehumanization lies near at hand.

Then he says Leon Kass refers to organ donation as a “noble form of cannibalism.” Yes, it is noble and altruistic —- maybe even a picture of Christ in that he gave his body for us; but it is also morally complex. Based on this Christian emphasis on the integrity of the body, the medical community’s present caution seems wise — especially since it's too easy to endorse ethically dubious practices as necessary for the greater good of mankind. But Meilaender’s questions are worth some thought.

*Correction: The donor's own insurance covers medical expenses. 

About The Author

Alisa Harris

3 Responses to “A noble form of cannibalism”

  1. Kirk says:

    I don’t necessarily see organ donorship as being ethically dubious at all. While I reject the Gnostic separation of humanity and the physical, I can’t find anything anywhere to suggest that personhood is directly tied to bodily integrity. Saying that we’d be sacrificing part of our humanity by giving away a kidney would necessitate calling an amputee, or a paraplegic, or anyone born with any sort of disability less than human. It would also mean that laying ones life down for a friend, or risking bodily injury to save someone else from harm would be ethically questionable. And what about relatively simple actions like artificial resuscitation, or giving blood or marrow. The air in our lungs and the blood in our veins are part of the totality of our created being. Would the ethics of this be questionable as well? Honoring God with our bodies does not necessarily mean preserving them. It means using our physical attributes to further the kingdom of God. We are stewards of what we are given and, ultimately, using our body parts in self-sacrifice is honoring to God. I can’t see where Meilaender gets the logic for his assertions, but scripturally, I can’t conjure it.

  2. Mark P says:

    Kirk, I agree that organ donation is morally commendable, but I absolutely do think it is complex because, as you say, you cannot separate mind and body artificially; the immaterial and material are wrapped up in one another.

    No, an amputee is not somehow lacking the image of God. I don’t think we can be made less human by wounds or illness. Self-inflicted wounds (and violence against others too) are tragic and wicked. Because of the image of God, the human body is sacred.

    Self-sacrifice is of course an entirely different matter. We honor God through sacrifice. At the same time, this does not mean that we won’t suffer for it—physically and mentally and even spiritually. It is, after all, sacrifice, and that is where things get complex. We can (and should) recognize that God’s sense of reward is not ours. This can and does often mean that we suffer for good… including the possibility that a righteous self-sacrificial act like live organ donation could have serious material and immaterial consequences.

    “Gilbert Meilaender is my favorite bioethicist.”
    -You have a favorite bioethicist? Damn. I don’t even have a favorite ethicist.

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