Religous exclusion to organ donation - how justified?

I’ve lurked with interest on a few of the threads regarding organ donation, and inevitably, the issue of certain religions not allowing the body to be altered prior to burial comes up as a reason not to institute a law requiring a willingness to donate organs in order to receive organs. Ignoring for a moment the fact that the above is a long, run-on sentence, why is that accepted without question. My point is that these religions allow the given individual to RECEIVE an organ, but not donate. I’m no surgeon, but if you get a heart transplant, I’m quite sure they remove the old heart and don’t just lay the new heart alongside it. So, religions have made an exception to save one’s own life (I’m not sure this is the case for all such religions, so let’s just talk about the ones that do allow the receiving of organs, the others, if they do exist, are being consistent, at least). The precedent has therefore been set that exceptions can be made in life threatening situations. Isn’t it then quite selfish to say that “life threatening situations” only applies to yourself, and not others? Doesn’t that go against the teachings of all major religions? How is this justified?

Perhaps it would help if somebody could let us know exactly which religions (as part of their official doctrine) forbid organ donation, and if any of these allow the receipt of donated organs?

Here is a link on judaism which implies that general donation to an organ bank or removing an organ from a person not yet really dead (in other words, most normal donations not involving the specific donation of a kidney which allows one to continue living to a specific individual) is not allowed, but receipt of an organ is allowed:


I’m particularly intrigued by this part:

" It is allowed for a dead non-Muslim to donate his organ (based on his will) to a Muslim needing such a transplant. It is NOT permissible for a dead Muslim (based on his will) to donate his organs unless the life of another Muslim depended on such transplantation. Therefore under no circumstances can a Muslim donate his organs after death to a non-Muslim. "

Again, that would seem to rule-out general donation, as a person in a car accident can not (I think) have a say in where his/her organ goes.

Fair play comes into it. If someone will recieve an organ transplant, a precondition should be that they themselves become organ donors, (When they die, of course).

While I am not an organ donor, I do not expect an organ to be donated to me. Quality of life thing.

Of course, this attitude may change as I get older, but if it does, Roman Catholicism does not, to the best of my knowledge, have any sort of bizarre ban on donating or stipulation that the organ must go only to another Catholic.

I’m not sure if you can start attaching conditions to acute medical treatment; after all, we could just as logically refuse to let an overweight smoker have a heart transplant (“why should he get one?; he hasn’t looked after the one he was born with”) or (possibly a little tenuous now) refuse to give people antibiotics because they weren’t involved in the R&D (after all, researching new medicines is something anybody could do, if they really thought about it…).

Defense for Judaism:

I’m sure that Judaism allows organ donation. In Jewish law, the saving of a life comes before almost* anything else.

Cite: Uhh… it was either in “The Jewish Book of Why” or the sequel, “The Jewish Book of Why 2”

Anyway, I’m sure Zev will be around sometime to confirm/deny this.

*I can’t recall exactly what the “almost anything” is. I think it was something like you can’t kill one person to save another.

Unfortunately, this area of Jewish law is fairly complex and I am in no position to give anyone a definitive ruling.

The problem with organ donation from a halachic (Jewish law) perspective comes from the fact that organs may be harvested from person who, while they are legally dead (or brain dead), do not meet the halachic definintion of dead. Thus, removing life-critical organs (heart, lungs) from said people would be considered murder. I don’t know if removing non-life critical organs would have the same problem (they may, since while a doctor may excersice care if removing a cornea from a living person, they may not excersice care for the “life” of the donor in a brain-dead donor).

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading halachic authority of the last forty years ruled that heart transplants were forbidden, since (1) the donor frequently did not meet the halachic requirements of death and (2) the recipients life expentancy was extremely short (he made this ruling in the 60s or 70s). Problem number 2 no longer exists, as heart transplant patients today have been known to be able to live for years. I don’t know the status of problem #1, as I possess neither the halachic or medical expertise to answer that question.

I don’t know about organ donation from live people (such as a person giving part of his liver or a kidney to someone else). My gut feeling is that this would be permitted on the grounds that saving a life would be the overriding factor. It is forbidden, however, for a person to, in effect, commit suicide to donate an organ (i.e. willing give up their lungs, etc.)

MHand posted on this subject not too long ago and could probably give far more detailed answers to these questions than I could. In any event, before any decisions are made, one should contact their Rabbi. Do not take anything said above as definitive Jewish law, as this is not my area of expertise.

As to the matter of lifesaving overriding all prohibtions, this is true, with three exceptions:

  1. Murder. If Bob says “Kill Joe or I’ll kill you,” you cannot kill Joe. You can, however, kill Bob in self-defense. You can also kill someone to prevent them from killing someone else, provided that there is no other way to prevent the murder.

  2. Forbidden sexual unions. If Bob says “sleep with Joe’s wife, or I’ll kill you,” it is forbidden to sleep with Joe’s wife.

  3. Idolatry. If Bob says “Bow down to my idol or I’ll kill you,” it is forbidden to bow down to Bob’s idol.

Any other prohibition, however, goes by the wayside in the act of saving a life. Thus one can eat non-kosher food if necessary to survive (Cast Away comes to mind), violate the Sabbath, eat on Yom Kippur, etc.

Zev Steinhardt

I think it is anti-religious for any religion to forbid someone to help save another person’s life. It goes against everything we are taught. What’s the deal on giving one’s body to science? Are any religions allowing it?

I found notes from a lecture given by Rabbi Dr. Moses Tendler on the issue of organ donation in 1995. His position is that organ donation (in the case of a terminal donor) is permitted PROVIDED the brain stem has ceased working (which is tantamount to physiological decapitation). However, in a case where the patient has a working brain stem, but suffered cerebral death, then the potential donor is still viewed as halachically alive.

The notes from the lecture can be found here.

Zev Steinhardt


Do you think that it is anti-your religion? Or anti-the religion that forbids it. Obviously it’s not the latter, since that position is self-contradictory. As for the former, well, you could say that Judaism’s denial of the divinity of Jesus is also anti-religious (and I don’t really have a problem with that.


Again, are you referring to your own religion’s teachings, or the religion in question.

For example, Judaism would forbid a person from giving their lungs (while living) to save another person’s life. Is that anti-religious? Is that so terrible, stating that one may not commit suicide to save another?

To my knowledge, Judaism does not permit Jews to donate their bodies to medical science. Of course, this prohibition does not apply to non-Jews.

Zev Steinhardt