By Lydia O'Kane
This week a new a law came into effect in the UK whereby everyone over 18 becomes an organ donor unless they opt out.
Other exceptions to the law are people who lack the mental capacity to understand the changes to the law, visitors to England, those not living in England voluntarily, and people who have lived in England for less than twelve months before their death.
The new system is called Max and Keira’s law after a boy’s life was saved by a young girl who died in a car crash in 2017.
It is hoped these changes will increase the supply of organs to help save and improve more lives.
In the light of this new “presumed consent” the Bishops of England and Wales have produced guidelines for Catholics in order to help them make a well-informed decision about donating their organs after death.
Church teaching on organ donation
According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity.”
Underlining the Church’s teaching on this issue, Saint John Paul II, in his address to the 18th International Congress of the Transplantation Society in 2000, said that “there is a need to instill in people’s hearts, especially in the hearts of the young, a genuine and deep appreciation of the need for brotherly love, a love that can find expression in the decision to become an organ donor.”
Reinforcing the Polish Pope’s words, Bishop Paul Mason, Lead Bishop for Healthcare and Mental Health told Vatican Radio that giving “ones organs to save someone else is a good and the Church encourages people to be organ donors.”
Organs as a gift
But he pointed out, “it’s important that there is a sense of the gift and there can be a sense of the intrusion of the state taking over what should be primarily a gift from one individual to another.“
The Bishop went on to say, that it is not absolutely clear whether this new “presumed consent” will actually make a difference and “bring about the benefit that we’re looking for.”
Even if the new system were to lead to an increase in the number of organs, Bishop Mason described it as “regrettable that the element of the gift of one person to another; their choice to do that as a gift has been removed.”
Speaking about the Bishops’ guidelines regarding the new law, the Bishop for Healthcare underlined that it was important to be aware that donating ones organs is now presumed, “and by not signing something, you are in a strange sort of way making it your choice to donate”.
He noted that hospital Chaplains are there for support, and are "able to talk through that process with the family when it comes to the time of organ donation, so it isn’t just seen as a bureaucratic matter.”
Bishop Mason also emphasized that in his experience, hospital transplant teams deal with this process sensitively and do take the families’ wishes into consideration.