An estimated 5,000 Americans die annually because they need organ transplants and physicians can’t find donors. Sometimes this can’t be helped, as in some deaths from heart disease; transplantable hearts are only available when a healthy person dies suddenly, usually in an automobile crash, and nobody wants the supply of hearts obtained that way to increase. But often the death of a person awaiting transplant could have been avoided if only donor cards had been signed or similar steps taken, or if there were enough volunteers for the kinds of operations that a person can participate in then walk away, such as donating a kidney.

And nothing is worse than when a chance to donate an organ is missed because of the false belief that donation is prohibited by religion.

Despite popular misconceptions, there are almost no religious rules against donating organs or receiving transplants. A few denominations ban these practices, and a few others have rules that are not models of clarity. But for most of mainstream Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and Hinduism, organ donations and transplants are allowed and or even encouraged.

All mainstream American Protestant denominations approve of organ donations. In a typical example, the Lutheran Church (ELCA) endorsed the practice in 1984, calling such acts “expressions of sacrificial love for a neighbor in need.” The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) voted in 1995 to encourage all members to carry Universal Donor Cards; the Seventh Day Adventist denomination, which has a long history of supporting advances in health care, not only encourages organ donation but maintains a pediatric heart transplantation floor in its hospital in Loma Linda, California. Most Pentecostal and evangelical churches support donations, although since these faiths are decentralized, there are a few local exceptions. Today even the Amish, for all their suspicion of modernity, allow donation if it aids the recipient.

The Vatican strongly supports donation; in 2000, Pope John Paul II addressed an international conference of transplant surgeons and praised their work, though asking them to shun any transplants using stem cells--a form of cell that, with current technology, must be obtained from discarded or aborted embryos. Eastern Orthodox Christianity takes approximately the same position.

None of the three major denominations of Judaism bans organ donation. Because Judaism believes the dead must be buried as quickly as possible, many believe that Jews cannot signed Universal Organ Donor cards, since removal of an organ would delay burial. But Conservative, Orthodox and Reform authorities have all said that if the reason for delay is to remove an organ that can save someone, the action is justified. Indeed, some rabbinical authorities assert that Jews are required by their faith to sign donor agreements, owing to the duty to save those in need. Some Orthodox Jewish interpretations forbid organ donation because it is viewed as mutilating a corpse, but this opinion is currently receding.

Islam supports organ donation; most Muslim commentators view it either as charitable or required to preserve life. Buddhism and Hinduism both leave this question to the individual’s conscience, but mainstream thinking in both faiths holds that donating an organ is admirable as an act of compassion to others.

Against broad religious acceptance of organ donation to aid the sick stand three major exceptions: Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Scientists, and the Shinto faith.

Organ transplantation is comparatively rare in Japan because Shinto traditions say that the body, once dead, is impure; also, tradition says that defiling a corpse brings bad luck to the person who does it. Thus many Shintos oppose the taking of organs from those who have just died, or say they would not want an organ transplanted from the dead. There are some indications this belief is beginning to break down.

Christian Science, in turn, does not ban modern medicine, as widely believed; rather, it discourages healing by means other than mediation and prayer, asking members to avoid professional medicine when possible. The practical result of this doctrine is that many Christian Scientists won't donate or participate in transplantation. But strictly speaking, their faith does not stop them.

Finally there are the Jehovah’s Witnesses, the one prominent American faith that prohibits transplantation. Technically, what this faith opposes is any movement of blood from one person to another: Jehovah’s Witnesses view an Old Testament prohibition against the “eating” of blood as meaning that blood from one person should never enter another’s body, even through a medical needle. Blood-transfer bans mean Jehovah’s Witnesses cannot donate or receive organs, since there is blood in the organ itself, and transfusions are almost always required during transplants. (The faith does allow a “bloodless transplantation” if all blood is washed from the new organ and no transfusion is needed, but only in rare cases is this practical.) The denomination revokes the membership of anyone who participates in a transfusion even if to save a life.

But with the exception of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, some Christian Scientists, and some Shinto, believers are free to sign Universal Organ Donor cards, offering living donations when possible and accepting transplants when ill. Don’t let God or faith stop you from signing that card or otherwise being involved; chances are, your God or your faith would approve.

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