Can Orthodox Christians Donate Organs?

Organ donation is the act of giving one or more bodily organs to another person to increase his or her health and chance of survival. In some definitions, this also includes blood and bone marrow donations. We will discuss all three types of donations and the Church’s position on them by exploring Scripture, the writings of the early Fathers, and contemporary theology.

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The nature of death

As human beings with a fallen nature, our physical bodies are subject to corruption, decay, and death. Corruption and decay of the organs within the body has historically been a common cause of death. Advances in medical and surgical technology in the past century now allow the prevention of death and the improvement in health of persons afflicted with diseased organs through organ, blood, and bone marrow transplants. Typically, organ donors may be one of the following:

  1. a live volunteer, typically a relative of the recipient;
  2. a person clinically diagnosed as brain dead, whose brain is no longer functioning, including the brain stem and cortex, which renders them unable to breathe unassisted;
  3. a deceased person whose organs were removed and preserved;
  4. an animal such as a pig, often for its heart valves.

A healthy human can donate a kidney, part of his or her liver, bone marrow, and blood without serious long term health risks. Surgeons can transplant many additional organs, such as the heart and lungs, intestines, pancreas, and the corneas, if the donor is already dead.

The sanctity of the body

Saint Paul says we are called to glorify God in body and spirit, emphasizing that our bodies are “members of Christ” and “temples of the Holy Spirit” who is in each of us (1 Cor. 6:15;18). He goes on to say that “the body is […] for the Lord and the Lord for the body (1 Cor. 6:13). Though in the biblical context he speaks of gluttony and fornication, it is clear that the sanctity of the body is imperative and inviolate, because in and through it we become one with Our Lord. The body is holy, and more importantly, doesn’t really belong to us. Rather, the body is a gift from God that we must treat with dignity, reverence, and care.

Not only do the Orthodox revere the body, but we also acknowledge the part our physical bodies play in our salvation. Scripture tells us we will resurrect in our physical bodies at the Second Coming of Our Lord. Irenaeus of Lyons corroborates this when he asserts that “God will bestow salvation upon the whole nature of man, consisting of body and soul in close union..  since the Word took it upon him, and adorned with the gifts of the Holy Spirit, of whom our bodies are, and are termed, the temples.”

The use of secular medicine

Throughout history, the Church has embraced secular medicine. St. Luke the Evangelist was known to be a physician (Col. 4:14), and many other saints, fathers, hierarchs, and priests were also physicians by trade. Among those commemorated by the Church are Ss. Cosmas and Damian, Ss. John and Cyrus, and Ss. Panteleimon and Hermolaus, recognized for their theology and piety, as well as healing skills. 

St. Basil the Great blessed the use of secular medicine in his writings, proclaiming that God worked just as much through the visible world as He did the invisible. In other words, God’s grace is made manifest through medicinal healing just as much as through miracles. St. John Chrysostom stresses that those who can relieve the suffering of others have a responsibility to do so. As long as pleasing God and tending to spiritual health remains its primary goal, medicine is in absolute harmony with the ancient Christian Faith.

However, there are instances where the Fathers specifically express that medicine’s use should be limited (and even avoided at times). The emphasis in healing should always be on prayer, for we cannot attend to illnesses of the body without tending to the illnesses of the soul. Basil the Great writes: “Do not forget that without God there is no healing for anyone,” and, “Those who resort to physicians, may they resort to them while relying on God, saying: ‘It is in the name of God that we entrust ourselves to physicians, believing that He will grant us healing through them.’”

The Orthodox view of organ donation

The Orthodox Church does not have a unified stance on organ donation. While some believe organ donation desecrates the temple of the Holy Spirit, others believe it is a wonderful, self-sacrificial way of showing love for God and neighbor.

That said, those who do decide to donate organs should consider the matter in prayer and in consultation with their spiritual father. When we donate an organ, we should always do so out of uncoerced love. To willingly give of one’s life for God or neighbor is the ultimate expression of this love (John 15:13). This self-sacrificing Christian love for one’s neighbor should be the motivation for such a decision, emulating the sacrifice of Christ Himself. Therefore, such a decision should never be made on the basis of coercion, nor should it be reduced to a transaction of any kind (such as for money).

Factors to consider when thinking about organ donation

Theologians note the following factors we should prayerfully consider:

  • Have all other medical treatments failed, such that a donation/transplant is a last resort for the intended recipient?
  • Is the goal of the transplant to prolong or save the recipient’s life? Or is it being done out of medical curiosity or for political/economic gain?
  • Weight the benefits and risks carefully. No donor is morally obligated to donate when it may risk his or her life or well-being. At the same time, the quality of life of the recipient prior to and following the transplant must be taken into consideration.
  • Willing and informed consent must be given by the donor and recipient, or by family members (with legal rights) acting on behalf of a patient unable to give consent themselves. The rights, wishes, and spiritual and physical well-being of the patients should always be considered first.

Other nuances worth noting

Orthodox synods differ on their stance on life-ending organ donations. For example, the Romanian Church holds that no donor may end his or her life to donate an organ, even to save another’s life. Such an act is equivalent to suicide and is thus unacceptable. On the other hand, the Church of Greece believes that a life-ending donation is an act of self-sacrificing love: “by this we know love, that He laid down His life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16). This is a perfect example of why the consultation of one’s spiritual father is essential in making such an important decision.

In the case of heart and lung transplants, some Orthodox theologians and hierarchs object on the grounds that the heart and lungs have deeper theological meaning for the body. Additionally, these transplants do not yet have a high rate of long-term success.

Transplantation of artificial, cloned, or processed animal organs is also a controversial topic among the Orthodox. The Church of Greece has not yet established an official position, citing the need for more research before the Church can voice her opinion. The Church of Romania, however, explicitly prohibits transplants that change or confuse the nature of the recipient. For example, a pig heart valve transplanted into a human body. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America echoes this view.

Lastly, as we mentioned earlier, organ donation cannot happen without express consent. Therefore, the donation of embryonic stem cells or tissues is unacceptable. Because the embryo is a living being that cannot give consent, such a procedure is not allowed.

Conclusion

Needless to say, this topic is quite controversial in our modern society, especially with many Christians concerned with the state of their souls. Obviously, there are several other nuances we have left out of the scope of this article. Generally speaking, the best rule of thumb for any Orthodox Christian who wonders about organ donation is to simply ask your priest or bishop. He will be more than willing to offer you guidance as you navigate this complex issue.

Is there a particular organ donation situation you’re wondering about? Ask us about it in the comments!

Read More: What Happens After We Die?

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2 Responses

  1. “Additionally, these transplants do not yet have a high rate of success.”
    This is incorrect. Please change. 80-90% success rate is pretty high…

    1. Antonia,

      Christ is in our midst! The 80-90% you refer to is the one-year survival rate specifically for heart transplants, with a 4% decrease in survival rates each year afterward. So by five years, your survival rate is 69%. For lung transplants, the one-year rate is around 84%, with the five-year survival rate somewhere between 50-60%. And for heart-lung transplants, around 68% survive one year, while only 47% of patients survive five years after the transplant.

      Taking all of this into account, the success rate for long-term health and longevity is not high enough to us to encourage or justify the ending of healthy lives for heart or lung transplants. God bless!

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