Faiths unite in support of organ donation

  • September 22, 2009
{mosimage}TORONTO - In an age when medicine and religion seem to frequently collide, the three Abrahamic faiths and medical science have found common ground on organ donations.

On Sept. 20, the archdiocese of Toronto will distribute 200,000 brochures to parishes explaining the theology, science and morality of organ donation. But they won't be alone.

The Toronto Board of Rabbis will be distributing 45,000 copies of their plea for organ donations at the same time. The Canadian Council of Imams and Jamiatul Ulama Canada , representing virtually every mosque in the country, will distribute 45,000 pamphlets explaining the Muslim understanding of organ donation.

All three faiths endorse organ donation as a "gift of life," the slogan of the Trillium Gift of Life Network.

The Catholic brochure was prepared by the Canadian Catholic Bioethics Institute and quotes Scripture, Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict XVI and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to counter Catholic fears that organ donation may represent another case of medical technology interfering in the natural process of death.

Brain death is real death and doctors should be trusted to be prudent about removing organs, said CCBI executive director Moira McQueen.

"The Vatican accepts brain death as adequate," she said. "You're talking about moral certainty, not absolute certainty."

But McQueen accepts that it's reasonable for people to wonder whether brain death is the proper measure of whether or not a person has died.

"People ask honest questions and they deserve honest answers," she said.

Catholic theology has traditionally relied on the best science to make determinations of fact, said McQueen.

The Jewish argument for organ donation faces stiffer resistance from Jews who are concerned that removing organs from the body constitutes desecration. But the rabbis' answer to that concern is even stronger. "It's a mitzvah," declares the Jewish brochure, or rather "a commandment," said Rabbi Michal Shekel, executive director of the Toronto Board of Rabbis.

While the Catholic brochure promotes organ donation as a positive option which the church and tradition looks on with favour, the much shorter Jewish brochure tells Jews it is their duty to sign organ donation cards.

The duty to save a life supersedes any qualms about desecrating a body, Shekel said. While removing organs may technically appear to constitute desecration, the life saved transforms the technical desecration into "a profound and genuine honour to the deceased," according to the brochure.

"Donating an organ is really the only way you can fulfill a commandment once you have died," said Shekel.

Muslims also have a strong cultural bias against anything that would hint at disrespect for the dead. But Imam Habib Alli doesn't believe there is strong opposition to organ donation in the Muslim community. Imams argue that donating tissue or an organ is an act of charity, and then they remind people that charity is not an option. It is a duty.

"That it is coming at the end of Ramadan, people will correlate this with charity," said Alli.

Promoting organ donations in churches, mosques and synagogues has been one of the most important projects for the Trillium Gift of Life Network, said president and CEO Frank Markel. Billboards or ads on TV promoting organ donation would be wasted if people mistakenly believed their faith forbade the practice, he said.

"People look to their religious leaders for advice, particularly around death," he said.

Future Trillium efforts will reach out to other faiths.

There are 1,700 people in Ontario on waiting lists for organ or tissue donations. Last year 81 died on the waiting list.

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