Myths about religion and organ donation cause hesitation

Published: Friday, Aug. 5 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Newman also suggested that religious issues crop up more often when people haven't discussed organ donation with loved ones ahead of time.

"The greater issue is just that people haven't really thought about it … and then something happens and they're placed in that position where, with really no information, they now have to make this very important decision," he said. "I think it's more the fact that the discussion doesn't take place, more than it's, 'Yes, we talked about it, and yes, we think it's against our religion, and no, we're not interested.' "

Culture may also play a role. Donor networks in Texas and Arizona have found that Latinos are considerably less likely to register as organ donors and that their hesitance often has to do with religion. The same has been documented among African-Americans, Polynesians and other ethnic groups. And because matches for organ donation are more common within similar ethnicities, this leaves many minority patients without transplants.

In Utah and Idaho, however, consent rates are as high as among Hispanics as among the white population, according to McDonald, and he credits IDS's outreach to the Latino community.

"With the Hispanic population, it's really a matter of trust. Do they trust the organization, and do they trust we're telling the truth?" he said. "We have a Spanish-speaking person on our staff, Rocio Mejia, who does education in the Hispanic community and also works with families at the hospital who are Spanish-speaking. She speaks the language, and she is from Mexico, so she understands the culture, so it's not part of the English-speaking white community asking them for their loved ones' organs."

Siatta, the IDS organ donation coordinator, also explained how the donation process is sensitive to cultural and religious beliefs. "I have had many donor families that are Catholic, especially Hispanic Catholic families who want their loved one to hold the rosary the whole time, even when we go to the operating room," she said. "Those are important things for them, and we'll honor those wishes."

In addition to reaching out to minorities, organ donation groups also engage directly with religious groups.

UNOS, which manages the nation's organ transplant system under contract with the federal government, produces a clergy manual that local organizations like IDS can purchase and share with faith leaders, Newman said.

It also promotes "Donor Sabbath," an event observed two weekends before Thanksgiving in congregations around the country. Local houses of worship bring in guest speakers, preach sermons, publish messages in their bulletins and otherwise encourage parishioners to talk about donation and sign up to be donors.

"It's a very targeted way to try to get that discussion into the faith community," Newman said.

During National Donate Life Month in April, IDS hosted an interfaith panel of religious leaders, including a Baptist minister, an LDS bishop, a Catholic priest, a Jewish rabbi and an Episcopal priest. All spoke positively about donation, McDonald said.

For example, Jewish rabbi Ilana Schwartzman said that in the Jewish religion, anything you can do to save a life overrides other religious obligations, McDonald recalled. "I can't remember how many (commandments) they're supposed to follow every day, but if you can save a life, all of that goes out the window because that's the most important thing you can do," he said.

For some others, faith plays yet another role in organ donation.

Lucile Jensen's son Conrad passed away 13 years ago. She describes the experience of organ donation as a spiritual blessing during a time of intense pain.

"It's just an impossible time to make any kind of decision. It's a tragedy when things like that happen and usually without a lot of time for you to think about it," she said. "I can't even describe the anxiety and the fear and the dread and the loss and everything — it's just very stressful. Your body and your mind can't think right."

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