Last night I accompanied one of our members, Mae Bennetts, to an event at the Queensland University. It was a thanksgiving service in honour of those who had donated their bodies to science. When her husband Sid died last October he had willed his body to medical science. Last night the university wanted to thank the families of the 262 other people who had similarly made the ultimate donation in during 2012 and 2013.
I didn’t go with high expectations. On the way to Brisbane Mae and I talked about the trends in our politically correct and multi-faith community to do away with anything explicitly Christian. We were pleasantly surprised. People from the various faculties that benefited from body donations spoke appreciatively of the fact that such donations make a huge contribution both to the training of health professionals and to research. But there were also two Scripture readings – from Paul’s letter to the Philippians and from the Gospel of John. The university choral group sang the hymn, “Be still my soul” (Finlandia) and at the close there was a prayer of thanksgiving and another prayer for the families left behind – both prayed “in Jesus’ name”. All in all we found it a meaningful and moving occasion.
This event also made me do a bit of renewed thinking about the whole issue of “the ultimate donation”. Over the years as a pastor I’ve witnessed various parishioners will their body to science – usually because the person concerned had a particularly puzzling or rare illness to which they eventually succumbed. They made the decision in the hope that by donating their body for medical research some answers might be found to help others struggling with that disease.
We spoke about “body donation” over coffee before our Bible Study group last Tuesday. One of members related that her mother had willed her body to science – but it never happened. Another of the children had declared, “No one is going to cut our mother up!” so she was buried instead. And there’s the rub. Body donation – and organ donation too – is such an emotive issue. At last night’s thanksgiving service several of the academics who spoke mentioned that the university’s anatomy department treats the donated bodies with respect. But how do you “respectfully” dissect the body of a donor? These are things that the squeamish amongst us don’t even want to think about.
Some years ago I pondered becoming an organ donor and having that put on my driver’s licence. Part of me argued against that idea. God gave my kidney’s to me… why should they be removed at my death and put into someone else’s body? However a little further thinking made me realise I was being inconsistent. As someone who has been a blood donor for most of his adult life why should I be okay with blood donations but not with organ donations?
For me there are two key issues that I struggle with (three – if I’m honest and admit that I still struggle with the emotive issue).
First there is the contentious matter of when death actually takes place. In medical circles that is now generally accepted as being when there is no brain activity (brain death). Yet some religious groups still insist that all bodily functions (breathing and heartbeat) must have ceased. This is not just a theoretical and academic issue. I’d want them to be absolutely certain that before they remove my kidneys I’m really dead and gone.
More importantly I have some major concerns about the push for organ transplants and the growth industry of body parts that this is inevitably going to lead to. Some are already talking about one day making organ donation compulsory. Much of this is motivated by the view that this life is all there is to live for and therefore we must at all costs do everything we can to extend life as long as possible. This totally leaves God out of the picture.
I’m thankful that there are those who, like Sid, willed their bodies to science so that another generation of medical people will be even better equipped to provide expert health care and so that certain human conditions can be better understood. But I’m even more thankful that I don’t have to cling to the false hopes that people want medical science to give us. I know that there is a time when the Lord will call me home and that one day, when Jesus returns, my body will be raised and I will live in a wonderful new world where medical experts will no longer be needed.