Religion and culture
As advances in brain research continues to make way toward discovering treatments and cures for neurodevelopmental disorders, more people are becoming increasingly aware of the immense potential for human brain tissue. The public, however, still does not fully recognize that while progress is being made, it is also being significantly delayed due to the shortage of brain tissue.
Many individuals may view brain tissue donation as a meaningful opportunity and solution to alleviating the pain associated with death and loss. While others, new to the idea of tissue donation and its unique impact on the advancement of scientific discovery, may consider the topic a taboo.
Culture and religion can have a profound influence on a person’s attitudes and opinions toward brain tissue donation. They can affect the way we feel about life and death, our opinions toward the existence of an afterlife or a soul, and our ideas of the events following death. When experiencing the passing away of a loved one or contemplating one’s own end-of-life decisions, a person might ask:
Is the decision to donate brain tissue for medical research compatible with my religious or cultural beliefs?
Although the answer to this question might vary from one denomination to another, the vast majority of religions either support tissue donation as one of the greatest expressions of compassion and self-sacrifice, or favor the right of individual members to make their own decisions. Overall, western cultures are usually more accepting toward the concept of brain donation than most Eastern cultures.
The following is an overview of the positions and discussions of various religions and cultures with regard to tissue donation. The information has been gathered with the help of priests, rabbis, ministers, and religious/educational leaders to provide some of the questions and concerns you may have regarding brain tissue donation.
"We encourage donation as an act of charity. It is something good that can result from tragedy and a way for families to find comfort by helping others."
—Father Leroy Wickowski, director of the Office of Health Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago
Prevalence: Brazil, Mexico, Philippines, United States, Italy, and Vatican City (mostly Western and some Asian cultures).
Discussion: The Catholic Church has long supported tissue donation, and believe that the consent to donate is viewed as an act of charity and self-sacrifice. According to Father Leroy Wickowski, director of the Office of Health Affairs of the Archdiocese of Chicago, “We encourage donation as an act of charity. It is something good that can result from tragedy and a way for families to find comfort by helping others.”
The Church also believes that in order to show respect for human life and to those that were once alive, tissue should be removed only when there are good reasons to justify such an action.
Donation: A matter of individual choice
Prevalence: Vietnam, Japan, China, Cambodia Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, etc. (mostly East Asian cultures).
Discussion: The Buddhists believe that the decision to donate brain tissue is a matter of conscience, and value any acts of compassion. Reverend Gyomay Masao, president and founder of the Buddhist Temple of Chicago, says "We honor those people who donate their bodies and organs to the advancement of medical science and to saving lives."
The Theravadan Buddhists believe that tissue donation is a matter of individual conscience. The Mahayanist Buddhists, on the other hand, believe that even though one has stopped breathing at the time of death, consciousness may remain in the body for up to 3 years, depending on the individual’s karma. If one is, however, involved in a fatal car accident, then they believe that consciousness would instantaneously leave the body at the time of death.
Prevalence: South Asia, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Turkey, Iran, Egypt, etc. (mostly South Asian, Arabian, Middle Eastern, and African cultures).
Discussion: The religion of Islam and most Muslim religious leaders strongly believe in the principle of saving human lives. In 1983, the Moslem Religious Council initially rejected organ donation, but since then has reversed their position, provided a donor’s consent form is obtained prior to death.
Donation: Individual decision
Prevalence: Israel, United States, etc.
Discussion: Judaists believe that all humans are created in the image of God and that respect should be given to the human body both in death and in life. For this reason, Jewish law sanctions the performance of autopsies only in special and very limited circumstances.
Most rabbinical authorities agree that postmortem examinations are often necessary to gain specific information that might benefit the treatment of those suffering with a life-threatening illness.
Jewish law considers sanctioned autopsies to be similar to surgical procedures, and believes that they should be performed with the same dignity and respect that would be accorded a living person undergoing an operation. Jewish Law also requires that the organs, tissue and bodily fluids not needed for medical purposes be returned for prompt burial.
One of the major provisions of the Israeli legislature's Anatomy and Physiology Act contends that if the individual has given consent for his or her body to be used for science and specifies this in writing, then the donated tissue can be used for medical instruction and research.
Prevalence: India, Bhutan, Bangladesh, Fiji, Nepal, Sri Lanka, etc. (mostly South Asian cultures).
Discussion: The Hindu religion is based on the “Law of Karma” and reincarnation. Hindus believe that the soul lives forever, is immortal, and gets reincarnated in a new physical form. There is nothing in the Hindu religion that indicates that part of the dead human body cannot be used to alleviate the suffering of other humans. Therefore, they believe the act of donating tissue should be based on the individual’s decision.
According to H.L. Trivedi, in Transplantation Proceedings, “Hindu mythology has stories in which the parts of the human body are used for the benefit of other humans and society."
The Brain Endowment for Autism Research Sciences (BEARS) Program ® is unable to include perspectives from all faiths and cultures. For those needing additional religious or cultural guidance, it may be helpful to discuss any questions and concerns with your own rabbis, priests, ministers, spiritual counselors, family members, and relatives. While they may not have all the answers you are looking for, they will undoubtedly recognize and support your desire to contribute to an important cause.