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Myths about religion and organ donation cause hesitation

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2011 3:52 p.m. MDT

Pastor Roger Russell, Rev. Omar Ontiveros, Rev. Diana Johnson, Rabbi Ilana Schwarzman and Bishop Robert Parkinson pose together at an event on organ donation hosted by Intermountain Donor Services.

Photos Courtesy Intermountain Donor Services

Angela Siatta, an organ donation coordinator, remembers a Buddhist mother who wrestled with the decision to donate her son's organs when he died.

"She said, 'I think it's a great thing, but I'm not sure if it's the right thing for my religion,' " recalled Siatta, a registered nurse who works for Intermountain Donor Services. "(Buddhists) believe that the spirit is still with the body until the heart stops. And then the spirit is gone. He was brain dead, and that's a legal definition of death, but because his heart was still beating, she wasn't sure whether his spirit was still there. And so she wanted her Buddhist priest to come and meet with her."

The priest arrived at the hospital, and after several hours of private conversation in which the religious leader assured the family the young man's spirit was gone and the decision was a personal choice, the mother decided to donate his organs.

"She really wanted to make sure it was the right thing," Siatta said, "and she did feel like it was the right thing after she was able to (speak) with her priest. … It turned out to be a very positive experience for her."

The number of Americans signing up to be organ donors is rising overall, but many are still hesitant — some because of misconceptions about what their religion teaches on the subject. Meanwhile, the gap between the number of people waiting for a transplant and the number of organs available is widening.

During the time it takes to read this article, another name will be added to the waiting list — something that happens every 11 minutes, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

There are currently more than 111,000 people on the list. And while an average of 75 people receive a transplant each day, another 20 people die each day waiting for transplants due to a shortage of donations.

As many as 20 percent of those who decline to be organ donors in Utah and Idaho mention religion, estimates Alex McDonald, director of public education for Intermountain Donor Services, a nonprofit organization that maintains the donor registry for the region.

And yet, no major religion prohibits organ donation. Some faiths leave the decision up to the individual. Others actively encourage organ and tissue donation as an act of love and charity. Pope Benedict XVI has been outspoken in favor of donation and carried a donor card himself until he assumed the papal throne, according to the Vatican.

Even Jehovah's Witnesses, who believe the Bible prohibits blood transfusions, still allow for organ or tissue donation if all blood is removed before the operation.

Yet, myths persist about the positions of religious groups on organ and tissue donation.

For example, McDonald said, "A lot of people are concerned about the resurrection and feel that they have to have all of their parts to be resurrected." Among non-Christians, like the Buddhist mother, concerns may be different. McDonald said IDS's policy is to encourage people to check with their religious leaders. "Don't take it from us. Please explore and find out," he said.

He also said religious reservations are often not grounded in any specific teachings, but rather represent a more general hesitation.

"A lot of times, when people are uncomfortable with donation but they aren't quite sure why, that's kind of a fallback position because nobody wants to get in an argument about other people's religions, so that's a good way to kind of get out of that discussion," he said.

Joel Newman, assistant director of communications for the national organization United Network for Organ Sharing, has had similar experiences discussing organ donation with people.

"I think people have individual spiritual beliefs that are perhaps a little bit different from what the official position of, say, the Catholic Church is. (Some) Catholics may feel that the body needs to stay intact and … whole in order to get to heaven," he said.

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