Jews are sometimes perceived as being “takers rather than givers”, when it comes to organ donation, according to a number of Jewish speakers at a meeting regarding the proposed change to laws on organ donation.
The community event in North West London on Thursday evening was part of the consultation being undertaken by the government, which is considering changing the method of organ donation from the current opt-in system to an opt-out version.
Jackie Doyle-Price, a minister in the Department of Health, was present, as well as Sally Johnson, director of organ donation and transplantation at NHS Blood and Transplant.
Rabbi Josh Levy, who opened the meeting at North Western Reform Synagogue (Alyth), told the audience of around 40 people that “every general election, just before the election, the Board of Deputies issues a general election manifesto, essentially a policy position paper on behalf of the Jewish community.
“Most of what you find in it is pretty strong expressions of Jewish values with regard to policy and politics. But for the last couple of years there has been a section of it in which the Board of Deputies has explicitly spoken out against the move from an opt in to an opt out organ donation policy, largely because that is the express position of the office of the Chief Rabbi and the Orthodox synagogues in this country.
“When I’ve read that I have personally been very troubled by that. Because for me that position seems to be counter to one of the most important Jewish values – the value of pikuach nefesh – the primacy of saving life.
“There are some very real Jewish legal considerations, particularly around definitions of death. But to speak out against a change in policy which can save lives seems to me to be counter to Jewish values, but also certainly doesn’t represent a unanimous voice within the Jewish world.”
Several members of the audience, who had either been the beneficiaries of organs themselves or had close family members who had benefitted, spoke out against the apparent reluctance of some within the strictly Orthodox Jewish community to donate organs at the point of death, although they were willing to receive such organs. The perception that Jews were “takers rather than givers”, gave them a great deal of distress.
A Jewish liver transplant surgeon told the meeting: “Every week we meet at the Royal Free [hospital], we discuss three to five patients on a weekly basis. And we have to say no to some of those patients [in terms of receiving a transplant].
“The reason we often have to say no is that we think their time on the waiting list, waiting for an organ, would sadly lead to their demise and they would be given false hope.
“We have to make those sorts of difficult decisions every week – and that’s simply because we don’t have enough organs.”
There are currently around 6,500 people in the UK waiting for a transplant, but there are some major obstacles preventing them from receiving the organs they urgently need.
“You might think, if there are 25 million people on the organ donor register, why have we got a problem,” said Ms Johnson.
“It seems self-evident that there wouldn’t be, but I think people often don’t appreciate that, although half a million people die in this country every year, and about half of them die in hospital. Only about 5,000 will die in circumstances where organ donation can even be considered.”
A major issue is that, although many people sign up to become donors, they do not let their family know their wishes, which can lead to great difficulties when they die.
“It’s quite clear that we’re missing out on a lot of organs because families don’t know that their loved ones would wish to donate,” Ms Doyle-Price said.
“What I really want everyone to do is to make sure that your family, your friends and all your loved ones know what your wishes are, because that’s the most important thing.
“If there’s any uncertainty, next of kin will [often] say ‘no, I’m not going to give them [the organs]’.
Ms Johnson added: “Last year, we approached 3,144 families - 1,972 said yes to organ donation,” she said.
“If the remaining 1,172 had felt confident to know what their relatives wanted and had been able to say yes, then we would have a real opportunity to save lots of lives.
“When I talk to the nurses who are having those conversations on a daily basis, they would always say to me ‘it’s so sad when I’m told that somebody said no, not because they didn’t believe that organ donation was a good thing, but because they didn’t know what their relative wanted and they were afraid to say yes. So it’s clearly something where there’s a huge amount of uncertainty.”
To take part in the government's consultation, follow this link - https://engage.dh.gov.uk/organdonation/13-2/