Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Mandatory Organ Donation--an Update

Don't you really hate it when something essential to your argument comes right after you publish it?

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.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

I told you it was a human tragedy. As long as people wish so desperatly to hang on to life, people will desire the parts of others that they can use a resource. This really needs to come along with the realization that whether life is long or short, we all end up the same way. We cannot live in this life forever, at least not now. We should learn to accept this rather than deny the reality of death. Without a full acceptance that death is right around the corner, you cannot treat others even distant others in a truly humane way. And really not ever. And until science figures out a way to prevent death from occuring we should develop a fundemental respect for one another. No matter the context. People are not resources. They are people. All of this Malthusian and misanthropic legislation and angst comes as a result of overpopulation. Historically, it has never ended except in human tragedy. Like Blake's "dark satanic mills" in the industrial revolution I can envision all kinds of distopias.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

Steve, the author's arguments did nothing for me. This one especially:

"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."

This strikes me as a lot of mystification about a topic that is essentially uncomplicated on a scale of reasonable valuables. Saving a person's life through organ transplantation strikes me as an intuitively obvious more important value than some vague concern about how transplanting organs from cadavers into living persons might "invite us to think of ourselves and others in ways that risk the loss of the full meaning of our embodied humanity."

But let's go w/ the idea for a second. Consider this statement “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.”

If the objection to organ transplantation is that removing a part of a person’s body wrongly attempts to sever what constitutes an essential and integral aspect of a person’s identity, then it seems to me that we engage in all kinds of medical and even hygienic practices that are morally questionable: tonsillectomies; removing cancerous lungs or kidneys; blood transfusions; amputating gangrenous limbs; pulling a permanent tooth; getting a haircut; clipping one’s toenails, etc.

Perhaps we shouldn’t perform tonsillectomies on, say, children who could die from the want of them so we can, in the words of your anonymous commenter, come to the “realization that whether life is long or short, we all end up the same way. We cannot live in this life forever, at least not now. We should learn to accept this rather than deny the reality of death.”

Me, I’m getting my child the operation. That’s less mystical, but it strikes me as the trippingly obvious moral and loving thing to do.

Steve Newton said...

Dana,
Not sure I disagree with you on all of that, but I am very concerned with moving toward the idea that we are all primarily repositories of replacement parts.

I'm curious--you never responded at all to my original post on organ donation and slippery slopes.

Dana Garrett & Stephen Crockett said...

"I'm curious--you never responded at all to my original post on organ donation and slippery slopes."

I postmarked it and intend to respond as part of my piece in support of the bill. Just been busy w/ research.

By the way, I saw your books on Amazon. WW2 military history is fascinating. Will you ever write something about it here?

David Mooney said...

Personally, it seems like it's a move that's come later than it should have done.

If my organs as still in perfect working order when I die, I see no reason why someone else shouldn't have the benefit of using them when I no longer need that.

And that, to me, seems more accepting of the "reality of death" than selfishly keeping the organs for myself. Especially if I'm not using them.

I posted about the topic here:
http://david-mooney.blogspot.com/

Anonymous said...

You do realize that all people want to live. If taking organs from some other person would save a life i feel that it is for the better. If a brain dead person can save the life of a child, or young adult or any person of any age why not? The person is not going to use it. People simply sit in the ground and turn into goop before the bugs can manage to get through the coffin. People don't understand death, i get that. That would be why we put people in little boxes before we put them in the ground. However, people should be required to donate because frankly, they arnt going to use it. And well see if any people here who wouldnt like donations if they were to fall ill. Would you embrace death with open arms knowing that your uncle could give you half his kidney and you could do on living.

www.empresas3d.com said...

Well, I do not actually believe it is likely to have success.