CCAR RESPONSA

American Reform Responsa

84. Transplanting the Eyes of Deceased Persons

(Vol. LXIII, 1953, pp. 152-153)

QUESTION: Is there any religious objection to the authorized removal of the eyes of a deceased person in order to use the cornea, by transplantation, to restore sight to a blind person?

ANSWER: The ethics of Judaism are grounded in the doctrine that human life and the personality of each individual are sacred. The ancient Rabbis, resting on this fundamental principle, insisted that the very body of man, the temple of the soul, retain a measure of sanctity even when all life had departed from it, and that it must, therefore, be neither marred nor degraded in any way.

Yet, in Judaism, to save or prolong life is a supreme obligation. The law therefore permits a post-mortem examination if undertaken to ascertain the cause of death and thus absolve another person of the crime of murder alleged against him. And so, too, is the performance of an autopsy permitted, if another person, presumably afflicted with the same or similar disease, might be restored to health by the findings of such a dissection (see CCAR Yearbook, vol. XXXV, pp. 130-134).

It would seem, therefore, that in Jewish law the dismemberment of a human body after death is not regarded as mutilation, if other lives--now imperiled or seriously impaired--might be rescued or preserved.

There is, of course, a difference between the act of dissection and the process of transplantation. But the difference springs from the nature of the means employed and not from the goal pursued. In either case, it is the life and health of a living person that stand to benefit by the operation.

We must, therefore, conclude that the authorized removal of the eyes of a deceased person in order to restore sight to the blind is not an act of mutilation, which is forbidden, but an act of healing and restoration, which in Jewish law takes precedence over almost all other religious injunctions.

Israel Bettan

See also:

S.B. Freehof, "Donating a Body to Science," Reform Responsa, pp. 130ff; "Bequeathing Parts of the Body," Contemporary Reform Responsa, pp. 216ff.

If needed, please consult Abbreviations used in CCAR Responsa.