The Morals of Organ Donation

“Is a donation still altruism if there’s compensation? Are you virtuous if you accept payment for a kidney?”

What parts of the human body can be donated? What parts can be sold? Is a private market for organs ethical? How do we solve the organ donor crisis? To some, these questions may seem grim at best and macabre at worst, but to Professor Angela Wentz Faulconer of the BYU Wheatley Institute, these questions have proved worth asking.

Dr. Faulconer offered a lecture on BYU campus that explored these questions and offered students an opportunity to express their opinions on the subject as well. Both Aristotle and philosopher John Stuart Mill framed the conversation with great moral questions. Faulconer frequently asked “What makes an action virtuous” and “Does this action relieve suffering” as she explained how different organ donations have different markets. For example, donors frequently sell simple biological components like hair, eggs, semen, and embryos to private industries.

But even these markets have complicated questions surrounding them. In some cases, industries pay women more than men for their biological material. In other instances, certain races receive more compensation than others. The existence of embryos and an embryonic market drastically complicates the already heated abortion debate—within and without the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

Then there remains the question of a market for more critical organs like livers and kidneys. Currently, there are no legal markets in the world for human livers, but there is a single country that allows for the private sale of kidneys: Iran. When examining this unique example, Professor Faulconer mentioned, “It’s also worth noting that Iran is the only country on earth that doesn’t have a kidney wait list.” Faulconer again asked her audience an uncomfortable but obvious question, “Could privatized organ markets solve the organ donor crisis?”

As is often the pattern in philosophical debate, Professor Faulconer’s topic continuously found more questions than answers and as she examined how the Church addressed these topics, the pattern proved no different. “What is the Church’s policy on organ donation?” she asked. Various members responded correctly that the church recognized that organ donation was a major blessing to many people, but the decision to donate or receive an organ should ultimately be left to the individuals themselves, after they had sought advice of both God and medical professionals, of course.

This cautiously pro-donation stance by the church did not hold true for all types of donations. Faulconer pointed out that “specifically in Handbook two, the Church says that they ‘strongly discourage’ the donation of semen.” She also pointed out that while the handbook offered “Only a single line” regarding this policy, other churches offered their members significantly more reading on the subject. Singling out the Catholic church specifically, Faulconer explained that “the Pope releases entire encyclopedias regarding their beliefs on organ donations.” Ever-inquisitive, Faulconer again offered her audience a question: “Why do you think our church handles this so differently?” For most of the respondents, the answer was clear. Similar to other forms of organ donation, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints proved more interested in letting members discover answers through their own revelation than by defining the rights and wrongs of every scenario.

With time running out and many eager questions and responses coming from the audience, Professor Faulconer referenced Aristotle’s definition of a virtuous person, and asked her listeners “Is a donation still altruism if there’s compensation? Are you virtuous if you accept payment for a kidney?” Here, her audience was a bit more divided in their opinion, but Faulconer herself believed she had an answer: “The act of accepting payment itself doesn’t make you moral or immoral person…It’s a neutral act.”

Zander Smith (English ’20)