Ask the Rabbis: What does Judaism say about Organ Donation?
Reform: The Reform movement's position is to permit transplantation of organs or body parts from a corpse for any legitimate medical purpose. Some authorities claim that the procedure violates the traditional prohibitions against deriving benefit from the dead (hanah'ah mehamet), treating the corpse in a disrespectful manner (nivul hamet), and unnecessarily delaying the burial of the corpse in its entirety (halanat hamet). We argue that none of these prohibitions applies in this case and that they cannot prevent us from fulfilling the overriding mitzvah to save life (pikuah nefesh) and to heal the sick (refu'ah). To be agents of life and healing after our deaths is to render honor and respect to our bodies. It is not an act of desecration or mutilation.
Then there are organ donations made by living persons. Here, too, the Reform halachic tradition considers it praiseworthy for a healthy individual to donate an organ in order to heal the sick. The most obvious objection against this is our tradition's teaching that we are not to expose our lives to unnecessary danger. Through the ages, some rabbis have interpreted this prohibition strictly: we should never subject ourselves even to a limited degree of risk, even in order to save the life of another. A competing interpretation, however, would permit and even require us to accept a limited degree of risk to save a fellow human being from mortal danger.
We must also consider the transplantation of such vital organs as the heart and the liver. These must be functioning in order to be of benefit to the recipient, yet to remove them from the donor would result in the latter's death. Reform Judaism accepts the standard of brain death as a sufficient indicator. Thus, when clinical tests reveal that the donor is brain dead and that the function of his or her vital organs is being maintained solely through artificial means, then those organs may be used for transplantation.
Rabbi Mark Washofsky, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati