For the past year I have been serving on the board of the Human Tissue Authority, the body that regulates organisations that remove, store and use human tissue for research, medical treatment, post-mortem examination, education and training, and display in public. They also give approval for organ and bone marrow donation from living people. I have become increasingly fascinated by its work and the many ethical questions that arise as medical science advances what is possible.
Part of my role, along with other board members, is to give the final approval for living organ donations, having ascertained that the donation is being given without reward, coercion or duress – all of which are illegal in the UK. The donor also needs to be capable of giving informed consent, having understood what the procedure involves and its consequences.
There are often incredibly inspiring stories such as a husband giving a kidney to his wife, or a work colleague donating to someone across the office. There are also people who choose to donate a kidney or liver lobe altruistically to someone who they do not know, and will likely never meet or know anything about.
Recently I read a report submitted to the HTA for such a donation. It was an older person who decided that she would mark a significant birthday, not by receiving presents but by giving to someone else. Her Christian faith had inspired her, in thankfulness to God for good health and so many opportunities, to offer to donate one of her kidneys to a complete stranger.
This would not be the choice of everyone, and many people might not be physically or psychologically fit to proceed, but it made me reflect upon how important it is to be people of gift.
If we believe that everything we have, including our bodies, comes from God, then offering to donate in life and in death is part of our good stewardship. Donation then becomes an incredible gift of love as ‘freely you have received, freely give’ (Matthew 10.8) and it furthers our Christian calling to bring healing, motivated by compassion, mercy and prioritising the needs of others.
Some people choose to be blood donors, thus contributing to the 7000 units of blood that are needed each day by the NHS; red blood cells, platelets and plasma are all needed to save lives. Others choose to donate bone marrow. Others register to be an organ donor when they die so that the 6,900 or so people who at any one time are waiting for a transplant might be given an incredible gift. The sad reality is that there aren’t enough donors; in 2015, 429 patients died while on the active waiting list for a transplant and a further 807 were removed because they became too ill.
It can take some bravery to have that difficult conversation with family members to explain that when you die you would like to be an organ donor. That conversation is, however, really crucial. If this is your preference, do register – by signing up to the Organ Donation Register – and carry an organ donation card, but also have that conversation today so that your family understand your wishes to bring life and health to others if something were to happen to you.
Life is an incredible gift. Donation in life, and in death, gifts to others lots more life in all its fullness.
Rt Revd Graham Usher
The Bishop of Dudley