As Western countries continue to slide down the slippery slope of legalizing euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, harvesting the vital organs of the living, or death by donation, is becoming a greater possibility.
Some form of euthanasia or assisted suicide is legal in Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and seven U.S. states plus the District of Columbia. In Canada and some Western European countries, patients who consent to lethal injection may also choose to donate their organs after death. Right now, laws require that donors are dead before the organs are removed.
But that may be changing.
The idea of carrying out euthanasia by placing donors under general anesthesia and then surgically removing their vital organs while they are still alive is gaining frightening traction, E. Wesley Ely, a pulmonary and critical care physician, wrote in an op-ed for the May 2 issue of USA Today. Ely said he attended international medical conferences in the past two years in which discussions among hundreds of physicians about organ donation ethics unexpectedly turned to conversations about death by donation.
Two Canadian physicians and a Harvard Medical School ethicist wrote in a recent New England Journal of Medicine article that procuring consenting patients’ organs while they are still alive “may be ethically preferable.”
In the United States, nearly 115,000 people need an organ transplant, and an average of 33 people per day die on the waiting list. The absence of blood flow during the dying process often damages organs. Proponents say death by donation avoids that problem since the donor would still be alive and supplying blood to the organs at the time of removal.
Empathy for severely ill people in need of a transplant may motivate such assertions, but both Christian and secular ethicists point to the many moral quandaries of death by donation.
Vulnerable and marginalized people could be coerced into believing they have a duty to die to help others, Ely noted. “People with physical and mental disabilities have expressed that they feel stigmatized and that society devalues their lives,” he said. “Would this send them a not-so-subtle message to get out of the way and do something noble with their healthy organs?”
In a 2012 New York Times article, Ben Mattlin, who suffers from a congenital neuromuscular disease that renders him unable to feed himself, described how he has felt “invisible forces of coercion” pressuring him toward euthanasia. He described “that certain look of exhaustion in a loved one’s eyes, or the way nurses and friends sigh in your presence while you’re zoned out in a hospital bed.”
The danger for Christians is that the desire to love and help others can subtly cross over to focusing more on the person in need of an organ than on the potential donor, said Georgetown University MedStar Health physician Allen Roberts, who emphasized his opinions were his own and not those of his employer. We all want treatment for illness, Roberts said, but healing must take place in ways that “do not violate the sacred covenant handed down to us by God himself. … You cannot intend the death of another person because we are all created in God's image.”