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Last of 4 parts: Religious groups disagree on medical donations

by Jeremy Gantz
May 24, 2007


Tiffany Sharples/Medill

Although organ and tissue donations are accepted and encouraged by most religions, whole body donation remains a contentious subject, particularly among Muslim and Jewish scholars. 

To follow the series on body and organ donation:

May 18: The vast majority of medical schools employ cadaver dissection as a crucial teaching tool for first year medical students. Experts argue that the practice has a profound impact on the students, the medical profession, and ultimately the patients of future doctors.

May 22:  Full body donation is an essential part of medical science, yet most of us know very little about how this process works. It is less creepy than we might think, and considered noble in the eyes of those who benefit from these donations.

May 23:  Only a fraction of 1 percent of people who sign up to be organ donors will actually be able to donate, making it all the more important in advocates eyes to register for donation and discuss the issue with loved ones.

Today: Each religion has unique rituals to usher the deceased into whatever lies beyond. Yet some religions believe that those donating bodily remains deserve exemptions from traditional death rites.

After her father died five years ago, Rev. Susan Johnson found herself in an unusual position.

Her father had donated his body to a medical school, and Johnson was left with the task of explaining to her Hyde Park Union Church congregation why people would allow their bodies to become educational tools for medical students.

“I did sense that people were concerned about the fact that he would be dissected,” said Johnson, an ordained American Baptist minister and the chair of the board of trustees of the University of Chicago’s divinity school. Members of her theologically-progressive church were concerned with “a certain level of terror resulting from letting someone be dismembered,” she said.

In explaining her father’s wishes, Johnson needed to bridge the gap between her church’s stance on whole body donations (it takes no doctrinal position) and her congregants’ discomfort with the break from traditional burials.

“I think what every church struggles with is the power of informal tradition,” Johnson said Wednesday.

Virtually all religions not only allow but encourage organ donations, exempting the practice from traditional proscriptions against desecration of the human body because it can improve other lives.

But whole body donations are more complicated. They aren’t strictly necessary – they don’t directly save lives or reduce suffering, although they can ultimately contribute to medical science. And they can make adherence to ancient burial or cremation practices either problematic or impossible.

The tension between traditional death rites that affirm the human body’s sacredness and whole body donations is nothing new, says William Schweiker, professor of theological ethics at the University of Chicago’s divinity school.

“In most religious traditions there is a tension between the claims that on the one hand, we don’t have ultimate bestowal over ourselves. On the other, there is a great concern in all the religions that we give of ourselves in caring, merciful acts,” said Schweiker, who is also an ordained United Methodist minister.

Disagreements about whole body donations among the major religions are as varied and complex as the religions themselves; the only way to know how your priest, pastor, rabbi or imam feels about whole body donations is by asking him or her.  

Open to debate: Islam, Judaism, Hinduism

Islam wrestles with the tension between tradition and medical science, perhaps more than most faiths. A traditional Muslim burial requires an intact body – meaning cremated remains, the ultimate form of a donated body, are no substitute.

Still, there is no explicit ban on such donations in Islamic holy texts, says Imam Kifah Mustapha of the Mosque Foundation in Bridgeview. But this makes the issue more, not less, contentious among Muslim scholars and leaders.

“If there is no clear reference to 'do or do not' in the texts, there is room for scholars to interpret it,” Mustapha said. “But most scholars don’t feel comfortable allowing people to [donate their bodies]. The tradition of the prophet is for the body to be honored. You must put it under earth,” Mustapha said.

Similarly, Jewish law prohibits any desecration of the human body, although organ donation is informally permitted for specific, immediate transplants that would preserve a human life.

Whole body donation, therefore, isn’t permitted, according to Rabbi Shraga Simmons, senior editor of  the popular Judaism Web site 

But the issue isn’t so simple, said Rabbi Ira Yidovin, who heads the multi-denominational Chicago Board of Rabbis. “There is division among Jews on this topic,” he said. Orthodox Judaism, for instance, does not allow cremation or whole body donation. But Reform Judaism approves of cremation. 

Ironically, it is Hinduism’s mandatory cremation upon death that makes whole body donation so problematic to Hindus. Organ and tissue donation is an individual choice, and is even encouraged by religious doctrine, but whole body donation conflicts with Hindu last rites, said Dr. Sudha Rao, a trustee with the Hindu Temple of Greater Chicago in Lemont and a physician at Children's Memorial Hospita. 

Hindu requirements for immediate cremation are at odds with medical school practices in which donated, embalmed bodies are used for up to two years.  “Although there is no rule against whole body donations, the concept that the last rites will be difficult to do without cremation will create emotional turmoil for many,” Rao wrote in an e-mail.

Although whole body donations are controversial in her native India, Rao said she would likely donate her body to science if she lived there because she perceives the need abroad to be greater than in the U.S, where she is listed as an organ donor.  

An individual’s choice: Christianity and Buddhism

The question of whole body donation is far less controversial among Christian denominations, which typically allow organ donations and cremation. Most agree that the decision to donate one’s body to medical science is personal and see it   as a life-affirming act.

Hyde Park Union Church's Rev. Johnson said her church allows members to do as they wish with their bodies.“It’s not unlike women making their own reproductive decisions. I just think you cannot tell someone to do with their body something that is against their will.”

Phil Blackwell, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Chicago, said mainstream Protestant churches typically consider whole body donation for scientific purposes a caring gesture.  “Making such a designation is an affirmation of life in the midst of death,” he said.

The Archdiocese of Chicago agrees.

“If people want to donate their bodies to be used as a teaching tool, from a moral standpoint, it’s good because it’s helping mankind,” said James Gerso, an archdiocese spokesman.

But he offered a caveat: whole body donation is only acceptable if  “instructors are respectful of the body, and when they’re through with their need for it in the classroom the remains are returned to the family and properly interred and buried,” Gerso said.

Buddhists have the fewest theological quandaries about the disposition of the body. There are no official positions regarding organ or whole body donations, said Asayo Horibe, president of the Buddhist Council of the Midwest.  

“It’s a personal choice,” she said.

But given its central focus on relieving suffering, Buddhism seems to implicitly approve all bodily donations. And given its emphasis on impermanence and non-attachment to self, whole body donation could be the perfect way for a Buddhist to achieve Enlightenment.