Today I received my copy of First Things, and in it--naturally--was an essay on organ donation apparently inspired by the Gordon Brown plan in Great Britain for an opt-out harvesting program similar to that proposed in Delaware by Rep. Pete Schwarzkopf. [I am going to quote extensively because you won't be able to find the article itself online without already being a subscriber until the next issue comes out in 2 months. With luck I will go back then and paste in the URL here; if you are reading this after March 2008 and it is not here, jog my memory.]
For me, the article was a "good news-bad news" sort of thing. Bad news first.
Professor Gilbert Meilander, holder of the Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University, presents a really cogent counter-argument to my "it's my body and my property argument" that I did not see offered in the current Delaware blogosphere debate. I don't agree with him, but I'm not going to attempt to rebut him here, either. I just wanted to move the discussion forward:
Nor, I think, will it do to object to Mr. Brown's proposal on the ground that my body is my property alone, no part of which should be taken or used without my explicit consent. There are, after all, occasions--if, for example, an autopsy is deemed necessary--when we allow the needs of a larger society to override the bodily integrity of a deceased individual. More important, though, is that "property" does not seem to be the right way to think of my body's relation to me. Thinking in those terms may, in fact, leave us defenseless in the face of arguments supporting a market in organs.
Nor is the body of the deceased best thought of as property of his surviving family. If their wishes about its disposal ought to be honored, that is not because they own the body. It is because the life they shared with this one who has died obligates them to give his body proper burial--and the rest of us should do nothing that makes their duty more onerous that it of necessity is or that forces them, while grieving, to fight for the right to carry out such a fundamental human duty. "There is," as William F. May once put it, "a tinge of the inhuman in the humanitarianism of those who believe that the perception of social need easily overrides all other considerations."
There are a lot of strictly Judeo-Christian arguments in the next section of the essay, which I know will not resonate particularly well with my readership (and frankly, they left me a little dissatisfied as well).
But here's what I really wanted you to get:
All organ transplantation, therefore, even when organs are given, not taken or purchased, invites us to think of ourselves and others in ways that risk the loss of the full meaning of our embodied humanity. All organ transplantation--even when undertaken for the best of reasons and even when justified--remains troubling. It tempts us to think of the body, in terms Paul Ramsey used, as just an "Ensemble of parts," just a resource.
But a gift cannot so easily be severed from its giver. When an organ is freely given, that gift--like all gifts--carries with it the presence of the giver and directs our attention back to one who is not just a collection of alienable parts but a unified living being. Indeed, what the donor gives is not simply an organ but himself or herself. The gift can never be entirely severed or alienated from the giver. (Which is why, for example, we would think it wrong for a living donor to give an unpaired vital organ, such as the heart. The gift would undermine the very integrity of bodily life that it aimed to express.)
Taking organs, however, even under the somewhat euphemistic rubric of presumed consent, is a quite different matter. Although it does not alienate the organ from the person as decisively as would a system of buying and selling organs, it does go a long way toward treating persons as handy repositories of interchangeable parts. Learning to think of ourselves and others that way would be the true human tragedy and may still, just barely, be "an avoidable human tragedy"--to adapt Prime Minister Brown's words to my own quite different purpose.
Food for thought.