Friday, June 17, 2011

Organ Transplants and the Culture of Death

Paragraph 2296 of the Catechism of the Catholic Church states:
Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.
This paragraph reaffirms the principle, taught by Aquinas, that one cannot do evil in order that good may prevail.  But this principle is vacated so often in today's world that one has to doubt seriously that an ethical post-mortem organ donation is possible.  Call me selfish, but I refuse to be an organ donor: immediately in the wake of the first successful heart transplant in 1967, the definition of death changed so as to allow organs to be harvested from people who are not in fact dead (see this and this).  

What proponent of assisted suicide and euthanasia does not also advocate organ donation?  That the serial killer Jack Kevorkian was an outspoken proponent of harvesting organs, particularly from suicides and criminals, should give us pause to consider to what extent organ donation serves the cause of death, rather than life.  But it turns out that Kevorkian was merely one of a line stretching all the way back to Dr. Christiaan Barnard, who performed the first successful human heart transplant.  In his excellent 1980 essay on euthanasia, "The Humane Holocaust," Malcolm Muggeridge sheds light on the ghoulish side of the man lauded by the world as a medical hero:
Dr. Barnard’s own attitude to his surgery is well conveyed in his autobiography, One Life. His account of his first post-mortem is almost lascivious; as are his first essays with animals, whose snug little abattoir, he tells us, “smelt of guinea pigs, rabbits and hundreds of mice. Yet it was like heaven, and even today those odours excite me with memories of our first days, so filled with hope and dreams.” One of his dreams was to “take a baboon and cool him down, wash out his blood with water, then fill him up with human blood”; another, to graft a second head on a dog, as has allegedly - though I don’t believe it - been done in the USSR.
In the world's first successful human heart transplant, Barnard took the heart of 24-year-old Denise Darvall, who had suffered severe brain damage in an auto accident, and put it into the body of 54-year-old Louis Washkansky.  Washkansky survived for 18 days.  It turns out that Barnard injected potassium into Denise Darvall's heart in order to paralyze it, so that she would be technically "dead" for purposes of performing the transplant.  In other words, he murdered her for her heart.

Wasn't the killing of Denise Darvall worth it?  Heart transplants are all but routine now, thanks to her sacrifice and the pioneering work of Christiaan Barnard.  Besides: she would either not have survived long, or else she would have lived out her days as a vegetable.  The answer is that we come back inevitably to that now-foreign principle that you cannot do evil in order that good may prevail.  How can we press cold-blooded murder into the service of life?

"In Christian terms, of course," says Muggeridge, "all this is quite indefensible."
Our Lord healed the sick, raised Lazarus from the dead, gave back sanity to the deranged, but never did He practice or envisage killing as part of the mercy that held possession of His heart. His true followers cannot but follow His guidance here. For instance, Mother Teresa, who, in Calcutta, goes to great trouble to have brought into her Home for Dying Derelicts, cast-aways left to die in the streets. They may survive for no more than a quarter of an hour, but in that quarter of an hour, instead of feeling themselves rejected and abandoned, they meet with Christian love and care. From a purely humanitarian point of view, the effort involved in this ministry of love could be put to some more useful purpose, and the derelicts left to die in the streets, or even helped to die there by being given the requisite injection. Such calculations do not come into Mother Teresa’s way of looking at things; her love and compassion reach out to the afflicted without any other consideration than their immediate need, just as our Lord does when He tells us to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, clothe the naked. She gives all she has to give at once, and then finds she has more to give. As between Mother Teresa’s holocaust of love and the humane holocaust, I am for hers.
How easily murder disguises itself as compassion.  But the reality is that as soon as we are in a situation where we can avoid one evil only by committing another, we have at that moment reached the end of human resources.  Then the only course open to us is to prostrate ourselves before Him in Whom no one trusts in vain.


  1. I got a strange look from the lady at the DMV when I said I no longer wanted to be an organ donor for the very reasons you cite, Anita. I don't think it's selfish at all.

  2. Thank you for putting this issue so succinctly. I am not an organ donor for the same reason. BTW- Law and order actually had an episode about transplant where the "donor" died during the removal, as she was not yet deceased. The surgeon was put on trial for her death as was the thug who shot her in the head.

  3. Paul: I know that look. I got it too, the last time I renewed my driver's license and had myself taken off as an organ donor.

    Agnes: puts me in mind of the following old law school hypothetical. If a guy jumps off the roof, and you shoot and kill him as he rushes past your window, are you guilty of homicide? Answer: yes. Even though his death was immanent and inevitable to a moral certainty, you unjustly deprived him of the remaining seconds of life he would otherwise have had; and the cause of his death was directly traceable to your unjustified action.

  4. I too refuse to be an organ donor. As parish secretary, one of my jobs is to keep an eye on the pamphlets that are placed on the tables in the vestibule. One of my first acts was to get rid of all the ones that were pro organ donation. I can't remember where I read it- maybe on Life Site news? -that the preferred organs come from patients who are euthanised. Kill 'em in one room, rush the organs to the next room. What a twisted and macabre society we live in. (Die in?)

  5. Shirley, I'm afraid it's true. I'd fear going into a hospital as an organ donor, lest they look at me coming in and say, "Here comes a great liver!" Changing the legal definition of death allows them to get around the problem of organ spoilage due to actual death.