Ask a Priest – Is Organ Donation Allowed in the Catholic Church? What About Donating Sperm/Eggs?

05 Jul 2013

Jul 05, 2013

Is organ donation allowed in the Catholic Church? What about donating sperm/eggs?


The Church has no objection in general terms to organ donation. As the Catechism explains:

“2296 Organ transplants are in conformity with the moral law if the physical and psychological dangers and risks to the donor are proportionate to the good sought for the recipient. Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as a expression of generous solidarity. It is not morally acceptable if the donor or his proxy has not given explicit consent. Moreover, it is not morally admissible to bring about the disabling mutilation or death of a human being, even in order to delay the death of other persons.”

In an address given in 2000 John Paul II repeated what he had said in his encyclical on the Gospel of Life, when he stated that organ donation can be a way of nurturing a culture of life.

There are some important considerations to keep in mind, however, regarding organ donation. As the Catechism said it is necessary that the donor give consent to a donation. In his address you will see that John Paul II specified that it be “informed consent,” meaning that a potential donor needs to be informed about the risks and consequences of a decision to donate an organ.

There are different types of donation. One is from a living donor, who might donate, for example, a kidney. While it is legitimate for them to make such a donation this can only be done when it will not cause serious damage to the donor’s health. The U.S. bishops have a document on health issues and it explains:

“30. The transplantation of organs from living donors is morally permissible when such a donation will not sacrifice or seriously impair any essential bodily function and the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor. Furthermore, the freedom of the prospective donor must be respected, and economic advantages should not accrue to the donor.”

As you can see these guidelines, along with what the Vatican has said, are contrary to the commercialization of organ donation.

Then, the Catechism points out that it is not acceptable to hasten or bring about the death of someone so that there will be organs available for donation. Vital organs can only be removed after death, as you can read in paragraph 4 of John Paul II’s address.

There has been a debate going on for some time over how to define the point of death of a person. Organs deteriorate very quickly after death, so there is pressure to remove them as soon as possible. On the other hand, if vital organs are removed before a person dies, thus contributing to their death, this is not acceptable from the position of the Church that defends a person’s human dignity and right to life.

This article by William E. May examines the issue and in the concluding section on the criteria for death he mentions that there is an ongoing discussion about the issue of brain death as being the criteria for determining the death of a person. This other article goes into some more detail on this question if you would like additional information.

In 2008 Benedict XVI addressed a meeting organized by the Pontifical Academy for Life and he said that organ donation could be a form of witness to charity. He confirmed the need to assure that donations would not place a person’s health in serious danger and also repeated the objection to the sale of organs.

Regarding the determination of the moment of death Benedict XVI said that: “In an area such as this, in fact, there cannot be the slightest suspicion of arbitration and where certainty has not been attained the principle of precaution must prevail.” So while up to now the criteria of brain death is accepted by the Church the Popes have also pointed out the need for continued investigation and reflection on this matter.

When it comes to sperm or eggs as you are probably aware the Church has always opposed IVF and all techniques of artificial reproduction. This means that donation of sperm or eggs is not regarded as morally licit. This document published a few years ago by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (see paragraph 11 and following), explains the reasons for the Church’s position.