The Gift of Organ Donation

An Organ Donor Card Give the Gift of Life

says Sarah Carey


Within families it probably seems like the obvious solution. Between friends, it’s truly altruistic. Between strangers, it’s a miracle.

Kidneys are just one of the organs in demand. Many people need hearts, lungs, livers, pancreases and corneas. The key issue in organ donation is consent.

Right now, we have an ‘opt-in’ system. We depend on people to carry donor cards or tick a box on their driving licence to indicate consent. Even if they do carry a card, their decision can be vetoed by the family. I have to admit this part of the equation stumped me. If I’ve gone to the trouble of getting a card, signing in and carrying it around, why should my family, who are hopefully distressed at my sudden passing and perhaps not making rational decisions, be allowed to overturn my expressed wish?

I know it might feel strange to know that a part of your loved one is functioning in someone else’s body while they are gone from you. But that’s part of the miracle: They’ve given life elsewhere.

Those involved in organ donation say it’s vital that the concept of the ‘gift’ is preserved. There can be no hint that as we lay on a life support system we shift from being a patient to a source for spare parts.

It is for this reason that there is division in medical circles about the suggestion to change our system from ‘opt-in’ to ‘opt-out’ as proposed in the Human Tissue Bill. Rather than carrying a card, the idea is that consent for organ donation would be presumed, and you’d have to register your desire not to donate. The hope is that this would increase the number of donations. It would be a ‘soft opt-out’ because your family would still have to provide consent. Some are against opt-out because they say it shifts the emphasis away from the concept of the gift. In any event, they argue consent is not the real issue. Instead training of hospital staff to recognise potential donors and preserve organs is more important.

One peculiarity behind a drop in donations in Ireland in recent years has been our success in reducing road fatalities. Car crash victims, usually involving otherwise healthy young people, were a key source of healthy organs. The welcome reduction in those deaths has made fewer organs available for donation. But that makes it all the more important that we don’t lose available organs through lack of training for staff or a lack of understanding by families of the miracle they can make for another family.

Pope Benedict carried a donor card and championed donation for most of his life. Bizarrely though, on being elected Pope his card became invalid. The Church holds that the Pope’s body – organs and all – belongs to the entire Church and must be preserved intact. This is to allow for veneration, especially if Popes become saints. Now, it’s probably academic since Popes die so old their organs mightn’t be great anyway. But I think it’s very strange, especially from a Christian perspective. Surely the whole point is that on dying we leave our earthly frames behind?

I’ve watched processions of relics with benign indifference, but now I wonder if it should be done away with. I believe absolutely in respecting human remains, but you can venerate a deceased person without their organs. Your soul is supposed to be in heaven, right?

Still, if venerating body parts is your thing, then why not visit the Church of Saints Vincent and Anastasius near the Trevi Fountain in Rome? Here you can find the liver, spleen and pancreas of 22 former Popes, which have been preserved as relics. This custom of removing papal organs was abolished by Pope St Pius X in the early 1900s – sensible move. Perhaps Pope Francis, who seems just as sensible, will lead by example, and reinstate papal donor cards.