Jehovah’s Witnesses


SETTING THE RECORD STRAIGHT

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“But we think it proper to hear from you what your thoughts are, for truly as regards this sect it is known to us that everywhere it is spoken against.”—Acts 28:22

 

The Position on Organ Transplants

"Agreeing to an organ transplant or organ donation is a personal decision." http://jw-media.org/aboutjw/article02.htm#organ

In an effort to discredit Jehovah's Witnesses and portray them negatively, some religious opposers advance an accusation regarding the position of Jehovah's Witnesses on organ transplants between the years 1967 and 1980.

Did Jehovah's Witnesses zigzag on the acceptability of organ transplant therapy during 1961, 1967 and 1980? As we shall see after an honest examination, the choice was always ultimately left to the conscience. Also, there was never a danger of being disfellowshipped, and while this case became similar to the case of blood transfusions, it falls far short of being equivalent.

Included also is a consideration of what other faiths believed at the time, and how and when organ transplantation improved into the relatively safe therapy that it is today.

What was the position over time?
In the 1950's there was no mention of any transplant procedures in Jehovah's Witnesses' publications, as transplant procedures were still in their infancy. It was in 1961 however, that brief mention of the subject was first made in their doctrinal magazine The Watchtower of August 1, in its Questions From Readers section. The question was:

"Is there anything in the Bible against giving one's eyes (after death) to be transplanted to some living person?"

The answer, being a single paragraph, was:

"The question of placing one's body or parts of one's body at the disposal of men of science or doctors at one's death for purposes of scientific experimentation or replacement in others is frowned upon by certain religious bodies. However, it does not seem that any Scriptural principle or law is involved. It therefore is something that each individual must decide for himself. If he is satisfied in his own mind and conscience that this is a proper thing to do, then he can make such provision, and no one else should criticize him for doing so. On the other hand, no one should be criticized for refusing to enter into any such agreement." (italics added)

As we can see, no objection to organ transplants is presented here, and the decision is left to the person's conscience to accept or refuse.

During the 1960's, the subject for debate was the question of giving transplants to living persons for experimental purposes. In fact, the University Professor of Anesthesiology at Harvard's Medical Faculty published his famous June 16, 1966 article denouncing an extensive series of ethically-questionable medical experiments (Henry K. Beecher, "Ethics and Clinical Research." New England Journal of Medicine, 1966; 274: 1354-60). Soon after, in 1967 there appeared another famous work in the same vein: Human Guinea Pigs, by the British doctor M. H. Pappworth.

It was at this time that The Watchtower of November 15, 1967 commented on organ donation in its Questions From Readers section, in response to the following:

"Is there any Scriptural objection to donating one's body for use in medical research or to accepting organs for transplant from such a source?"

Rather than present a single paragraph leaving the matter to the conscience, commendably the article attempted to ascertain God's view of the matter by considering scriptures and principles. However, it also compared accepting a transplanted organ to cannibalism. On that it stated:

"Those who submit to such operations are thus living off the flesh of another human. That is cannibalistic. However, in allowing man to eat animal flesh Jehovah God did not grant permission for humans to try to perpetuate their lives by cannibalistically taking into their bodies human flesh, whether chewed or in the form of whole organs or body parts taken from others."

Granted, this opinion was taken from the article "Medical cannibalism" appearing in the Encyclopœdia of Religion and Ethics, edited by James Hastings (Volume 3, page 199), which it referred to and quoted from in its next paragraph. While the response included this comparison in an attempt to be balanced and informative, it also had the potential to offend and distract from the deciding power of the conscience also presented in the same Questions From Readers. Therefore the comparison to cannibalism proved to be unfortunate.

However, even with the unfortunate caution expressed above, the same Questions From Readers article did in fact leave the decision up to the person, as it later stated:

"Baptized Christians have dedicated their lives, bodies included, to do the will of Jehovah their Creator. In view of this, can such a person donate his body or part of it for unrestricted use by doctors or others? Does a human have a God-given right to dedicate his body organs to scientific experimentation? Is it proper for him to allow such to be done with the body of a loved one? These are questions worthy of serious consideration."

Further highlighting the role of the individual's conscience, it closed with these comments:

"[T]he Christian can decide in such a way as to avoid unnecessary mutilation and any possible misuse of the body. Thus he will be able to have a clear conscience before God.—1 Pet. 3:16.

It should be evident from this discussion that Christians who have been enlightened by God's Word do not need to make these decisions simply on the basis of personal whim or emotion. They can consider the divine principles recorded in the Scriptures and use these in making personal decisions as they look to God for direction, trusting him and putting their confidence in the future that he has in store for those who love him.—Prov. 3:5, 6; Ps. 119:105."

Thus, it is important to note that the same article also left much to the person's conscience.

Shortly thereafter in the medical world, in December 1967, the first successful human-to-human heart transplant was performed by Professor Christiaan Barnard at Groote Schuur Hospital in South Africa (the patient lived 18 days, which was considered successful for a high-risk experimental surgery, as such transplants were at the time).ftn1

During the following years from 1968 to 1975, there were some occasional and brief mentioning of organ transplants in Jehovah's Witnesses' magazines, The Watchtower and Awake!, all of them expressing medical concerns like inherent transplant risks and the side effects of immunosuppressive drugs, and generally referenced non-Witness works and authors (the last of such appeared in the September 1, 1975 issue of The Watchtower, page 519 under "Insight on the News" which noted documented cases of post-operation emotional trauma and upheaval).

Around the same time, the immunosuppressive effect of a substance called cyclosporin (alternatively spelled cyclosporine and ciclosporin) was discovered at the earliest in 1972 and at the latest in 1976. This was followed by a series of experiments attempting to overcome the primary practical problem organ transplants were facing: tissue rejection. These experiments went well and this substance was officially approved for medical use in 1983.ftn2 It was also during the late 1970's and early 1980's that a satisfactory answer had been reached on the exact moment of death. It is no coincidence that the laws and regulations for transplants began to appear around 1980 (for example, the Spanish law on organ extraction and transplant of 1979 and the corresponding 1984 law in the United States). Thus, it was in the early 1980's, and especially from 1983, that organ transplants stopped being experimental procedures and became accepted medical therapy.ftn3 In fact, from that year and even into the 1990's, many churches of Christendom and other religions began releasing official resolutions in favor of organ transplantation.

Today it is an accepted medical treatment.

After the above mentioned September 1, 1975 issue of The Watchtower, there was no reference to the practice of transplants in Jehovah's Witnesses' publications. It was not until The Watchtower of March 15, 1980 that a Questions From Readers article was again published on transplants, which had this exchange:

"Should congregation action be taken if a baptized Christian accepts a human organ transplant, such as of a cornea or a kidney?"

The answer began with:

"Regarding the transplantation of human tissue or bone from one human to another, this is a matter for conscientious decision by each one of Jehovah's Witnesses."

This article is clearly more focused on the role of the Christian conscience, specifying that each one must make a personal decision. Some Christians, it stated, may view transplants as cannibalistic and unacceptable, while others may view them as acceptable. This position continues to be the one that Jehovah's Witnesses have today. The same article concluded:

"Clearly, personal views and conscientious feelings vary on this issue of transplantation. ... While the Bible specifically forbids consuming blood, there is no Biblical command pointedly forbidding the taking in of other human tissue. For this reason, each individual faced with making a decision on this matter should carefully and prayerfully weigh matters and then decide conscientiously what he or she could or could not do before God. It is a matter for personal decision. (Gal. 6:5) The congregation judicial committee would not take disciplinary action if someone accepted an organ transplant."

Thus, after considering what was said in 1961, 1967 and 1980, it can be seen that the conscience played the ultimate deciding factor. It was up to the individual to decide, with no disciplinary sword of Damocles dangling above. Interestingly, as pointed out above, organ transplant therapy experienced a turning point shortly thereafter in 1983, when cyclosporin was approved for medical use.

No threat of expulsion
Even though the 1967 Questions From Readers included the unfortunate comparison to cannibalism, it specified that transplants are a matter of personal decision, with no mention of disciplinary measures.

To see this matter more clearly, contrast it with the question of blood transfusion. The idea was expressed for the first time in 1945 that blood transfusions violated divine law on the sanctity of blood; nevertheless, it was not until 1961 that it was specified that the matter was of sufficient gravity so as to disfellowship from the congregations any who disregarded this divine requirement and displayed an unrepentant attitude.ftn4

Has the same thing happened with organ transplants? After the 1967 article, did a subsequent publication state that to accept a transplant was a matter of sufficient gravity to disfellowship unrepentant members?

In 1968 the book The Truth that Leads to Eternal Life was published which was a study guide that explained the fundamental teachings of Jehovah's Witnesses to interested ones. This book considered the sanctity of blood in depth, but did not even mention the matter of organ transplants.

Besides, the candidates for baptism then, as today, examine the fundamental Biblical doctrines of Jehovah's Witnesses before accepting them, for which they had the books Your Word Is a Lamp to My Foot (1967) and Organization for Kingdom-Preaching and Disciple-Making (1972). Among these questions on the moral norms of Jehovah's Witnesses were covered, included the position on blood transfusions. Nevertheless, nothing in those books mentioned anything about organ transplants.

Therefore, despite what was expressed in the 1967 Questions From Readers and the medical concerns expressed in the Witnesses' magazines on organ transplants from 1968 to 1975, it itself was not grounds for disfellowshipping and therefore no one was disfellowshipped over it.

Contemporary Religious Views
On the other hand, were Jehovah's Witnesses an exception by expressing a negative viewpoint on organ transplants? Leaving aside some medical opinions against transplants since religion deals with ethical issues and frequently questions scientific advances (a current example is the case of utilizing stem-cells or not), the experiments on transplants provoked great controversy, especially at the end of the 1960's, and the religious sector played a noticeable role.

The Catholic Church, for example, presented serious objections in the past to homotransplant, or transplants among creatures of the same species (E. Chiavacci, Morale della vita fisica, EDB, Bologna. 1976: 64-81). In the Catholic book Problems of Sanitary Ethics (Problemi Di Etica Sanitaria, 1992; Ancora, Milano: 189), the Jesuit Giacomo Perico recognized that not too long ago transplants still presented "serious reservations of moral character" for Catholics. (italics original) The same thing can be said of other religions. For example, it was not until 1987-88 that Judaism had officially expressed a favorable opinion regarding transplants (see, for example, Alfredo Mordechai Rabello, "Donazione di organi. Comunicato dell'Assemblea dei Rabbini d'Italia," Ha Keillah, June 2000: 12-13; Riccardo Di Segni, "Il punto di vista dell'ebraismo," in "La donazione e il trapianto di organi e di tessuti," Punto Omega, December 2000 [anno II, n. 4]: 34).

The Muslim Religious Counsel rejected organ donation as late as 1983, although it later completely changed its position and now accepts the procedure, with some conditions.

The Gypsy community does not have its own religion, but its traditional beliefs tend to be opposed to organ donation, for they think that the body should remain intact during a year after death.

In Shintoism, the traditional religion of Japan, it used to be considered a serious crime to mutilate a dead body, according to E. Narnihira in his article "Shinto Concept Concerning the Dead Human Body." Additionally, he reports that: "To this day it is difficult to obtain consent from bereaved families for donation or dissection for medical education or pathological anatomy . . . the Japanese regard them all in the sense of injuring a dead body." Families are concerned that they not injure the itai, the relationship between the dead and the bereaved.ftn5

Therefore, a number of religious groups have opposed organ transplants at some time, and a number with time have changed their viewpoint. Similarly, while Jehovah's Witnesses always believed the conscience was the ultimate determining factor, the concerns about cannibalism were first presented in 1967 and were later reduced in significance in 1980. Although, as we have also seen, Jehovah's Witnesses were never forced to accept that opinion on cannibalism under threat of expulsion. The main concern was always about having "a clear conscience before God."

The Difference between Organ Transplants and Blood Transfusions
Highlighting this is a case of a youth whose experience was published in The Watchtower of November 15, 1969, "Appreciating Jehovah's Protection," pages 700-2. This is not a case of someone passing away, but of someone relating an experience after recovering from surgery. The question this person was faced with was not one of organ transplants but of blood transfusions, although at one point his doctor asked him if he would be willing to donate a kidney. Pointedly, his reaction is a good example of the difference between the position of Jehovah's Witnesses regarding blood transfusions and that regarding organ transplants. When his doctor offered him two possible procedures, one that included blood transfusions and another that did not include them, he chose the later. But when asked if he would give his consent to donate a kidney, this was his reaction:

"I told him he would get a frank and thorough answer to his inquiry after we had had a family discussion of God's Word on the issue." (page 701)

It was not until the following day that he gave his response, which was negative. This clearly illustrates that the question of organ transplants was not comparable to that of blood transfusions for this reason: The donation option was not categorically prohibited (like the blood transfusion option), but one left to personal decision (or consulting with one's family, as in the case of this youth).

In Summary
The role of the individual's conscience has always been held as the deciding factor on the acceptability of organ transplants. Unlike with blood transfusions, there was never a disfellowshipping or disciplinary consequence for accepting them. While orally ingesting blood as well as blood transfusion is unacceptable, it is not so with organs.

Thus, critics should be careful not to use this issue to promote hysteria, misunderstanding, or intolerance.


Footnotes

1. "Heart transplantation." Wikipedia. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heart_transplantation> (September 10, 2008) (back)

2. Upton, Harriet. "Origin of drugs in current use: the cyclosporin story." 2001. The Mostly Medical Part of the World of Fungi. <www.world-of-fungi.org/Mostly_Medical/Harriet_Upton/Harriet_Upton.htm> (September 8, 2008). "Ciclosporin." Wikipedia. <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ciclosporin> (September 8, 2008) (back)

3. "Ciclosporin." supra note 2. (back)

4. "Immovable For The Right Worship." July 1, 1945: 199-201. "Questions From Readers." January 15, 1961: 63-4. (back)

5. "Religious Views of Organ & Tissue Donation." The Transplant Network. <web.archive.org/web/20050224131421/http://www.thetransplantnetwork.com/religiousviews.shtml> (September 8, 2008) (back)


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Added: May 30, 2007. Revised: September 10, 2008. Copyright © 1997 by Jehovah's Witnesses—Setting the Record Straight. All rights reserved. This web site is not affiliated with or sanctioned by the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. However, every effort has been made to adhere to the current views published by the "faithful and discreet slave" (Matthew 24:45; Luke 12:42) through the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society. The "Official Web Site of Jehovah's Witnesses" can be found at http://www.jw.org, and should be recognized as the authoritative source about the beliefs, teachings, and activities of Jehovah's Witnesses.