Sitting at my parents’ kitchen table right after I got back from a year of study in England, my mother handed me a health care proxy form to fill out. (She’s a social worker, in the middle of a state-wide campaign to raise awareness about instructing others how you want to be treated should you be incapacitated.) Page two required me to sign on the dotted line to donate my organs, and I stopped short. Although I’ve called myself a Conservative Jew my whole life, it’s only been a year that I’ve started to pay closer attention to how Jewish law views what I classify as “The Important Stuff.” Matters pertaining to the end of life—especially when the life in question is mine—certainly qualify as “important.” “Hey. What’s the official halakhic deal with organ donation?” I asked, only to be reminded that, especially with a year in a British Jewish Studies department under my belt, I was the resident expert on issues of halakha. If I didn’t know, it was up to me to find out.
I started my search for halakhic organ donation information the way I start my search for a good feminist bookstore; I googled. And I discovered that there are serious reasons—for a Jew and for a woman—to consider becoming an organ donor The first result to pop up on Google was HODS, the Halachic Organ Donors Society, which both spreads the good word and makes actual connections between potential donors and recipients. There are important reasons (for Jews, for women) to arrange to donate our organs after we die, yet the misconceptions about issues of organ donations are both widespread and, oddly, entrenched. (One rabbi has described the idea of a socalled Jewish prohibition on donation as “the most successful bubbemeise propaganda campaign of all time.”) These misconceptions turn out to account for a large part of Jews’ resistance to Jewish organ donation; on top of this, we—just like other people—resist facing the thought of our own mortality.
The HODS website (www.hods.org) goes into specific areas of Jewish law that might have stopped religiously observant Jews from considering organ donation, including nivul hamet (the prohibition against needless mutilation of a cadaver) and halanat hamet (the prohibition against delaying a burial) and weighs them against pikuach nefesh (the commandment to save lives). Orthodox rabbis and those of other denominations find that the commandment to save a life outweighs other laws—or doesn’t even come into conflict with them in the first place.
Womanshealth.gov, run by a subsidiary of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, notes that the number of people waiting to receive organ transplants rises each year, even though, according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), there has been an increase in organ donation from 4,080 in 1988 to nearly 25 times that today. The number of people who die every year in the U.S. while waiting for a healthy liver, lung, heart or kidney reaches well over 5,000—a number especially horrifying given that these desperately ill people know exactly what could save them; there is no mystery diagnosis in these cases, just a clearcut need, but insufficient resources to meet that need.
Women donors are far outnumbered by men. According to OPTN, there have been 39,218 organ donations by women since 1988—less than half of the 97,679 total donations. In fact, in almost every year for which data exists, the number of men donating exceeds the number of women by over a thousand. Womanshealth.gov makes clear that “finding organ donors can be challenging for minority women,” specifically because an organ match is much more likely to work if both donor and recipient are of similar ancestry. Furthermore, size does matter, so it’s more likely that a woman in need of a donated organ will find a match from another woman. The simple facts that govern organ transplants mean that Jewish women will most likely match with Jewish women. So: Want to save a Jewish woman’s life? Sign the forms—in some states they come with your driver’s license—to become an organ donor.
It’s clear to me now that all Jews should feel obligated (in fact, are obligated) to donate organs at death. Feminist Jews have been revolutionary in advocating women’s control over our own bodies. Now, in ways most of us have probably never considered before, we have a chance to use our bodies for the good of someone else after we have no more use for them.
Melanie Weiss is a graduating senior at Sarah Lawrence College. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.