Halakhic Questions about Organ Transplants

What are the Jewish legal issues with organ transplantation?

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Reprinted with permission from Biomedical Ethics and Jewish Law, published by KTAV.

The halakhic (Jewish legal) issues concerning the transplantation of a human organ can be conveniently subdivided into those which pertain to the recipient, those that involve the physician or medical team, and those that primarily affect the donor.

 

In regard to the recipient, what is the status of the transplanted organ? Does it become a permanent part of the recipient, or must it be returned to the donor upon the eventual death of the recipient? The donor may long since have been buried, and his identity and/or burial site may not be known.

Furthermore, where a diseased organ such as a heart, liver, or lung is removed before implantation of a new organ, what does one do with the “old” or diseased organ? Can one just discard it? Must it be buried? Can one incinerate it or place it in formalin for preservation? Must it be treated with respect as part of a human being who was created in the image of God? This problem is not unique to organ transplantation but applies to any organ or part removed from a living human being. Thus, the rabbis discuss whether or not a gallbladder, stomach, uterus, appendix, foot, leg, or other diseased organ or limb removed at surgery or traumatically avulsed requires burial. An entire chapter in Rabbi Joseph Karo’s code of Jewish law [the Shulkhan Aruch] is devoted to this question.

Another halakhic question is whether or not the recipient is allowed to subject himself to the danger of the operative procedure. In Judaism, it is not proper to intentionally wound oneself for no valid medical reason. Does this rule apply to surgery in general and to an organ transplant in particular? Furthermore, does the recipient transgress the biblical commandments “Take heed to thyself” and “Keep thy soul diligently and take ye therefore good heed unto yourselves,” which both the Talmud and Maimonides interpret to mean the removal (i.e., avoidance) of all danger to one’s physical well‑being?

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Dr. Fred Rosner is Director of the Department of Medicine of the Mount Sinai Services at the Queens Hospital Center and Professor of Medicine at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine. He is a diplomat of the American Board of Internal Medicine and a Fellow of the American College of Physicians.

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