Rooted in Misconceptions: Hesitance towards Organ Donation

tuteja1 One of the most polarizing scientific advancements of the 20th and 21st centuries has been organ transplantation.  The words “organ donation” often conjure up gory images of surgery and possible death. Currently, there are 120 million donors in the United States, about 37% of the country’s population, yet an average of 18 people die each day due to the shortage of donated organs. An approximate 120,000 people are on the waiting list to receive an organ, and many will die waiting for a transplant [1]. Although a single organ donor can save up to 8 lives, the many misconceptions about organ donation have led to countless individuals deciding not to donate [1].

Organ donation is the surgical removal and transplantation of an organ from one person to another. The kidney, heart, liver, lung, pancreas, and intestines can all be transplanted from a deceased individual into a living one. People who are alive are also able to donate a kidney and parts of other organs. Along with organs, blood, stem cells, platelets, and tissue can also be donated. Tissues that can be donated include the cornea, middle ear, skin, heart valve, bone, veins, cartilage, and tendon [2].

The lack of knowledge and education about the topic causes people to become hesitant about donating. In a study, researchers questioned college students and MBA students on their knowledge of organ donation. More than 75% were aware of the shortage of donors, the cost effectiveness of operations, the regulated eligibility criteria, and that donors must give permission for their organs to be removed. However, many subjects were not informed of facts, which could have caused people to become fearful and reluctant to donate [3].

For instance, findings show that the fear of a doctor hastening a donor’s death is the main reason people choose not to donate. Many people fear that if they were ever dying in a hospital the doctor would let them die, instead of pursing methods that could lead to recovery in order to take their organs. There are extensive procedures and regulations in place to protect the donor and his or her family that would prevent such a situation, but due to the lack of information, this misconception exists strongly in the minds of possible donors [3].

There is also a misconception concerning brain death that further deters people from choosing to be organ donors. The concept of brain death in regards to organ donation is a source of confusion for many. Regarding donors who are deceased, full brain death needs to be declared in order for an organ to be removed for donation [3]. Brain death means that the brain has irreversibly lost all function. It is not the same as a vegetative state.  A patient who is registered as an organ donor and is in the hospital dying, will not have their organs taken from them until a doctor declares them brain dead. The general public is not aware of this regulation. This can cause people to become cautious when deciding whether or not to become an organ donor because they fear that their organs will be removed while they are dying, but have the possibility of recovery.

Along with the level of knowledge, a person’s religion and beliefs strongly influence his or her decision to become an organ donor. In a 2006 study that considered the influence of religion on organ donation and transplantation, researchers found that many participants were unsure if their religion allowed them to donate or accept organs. This ambiguity has stalled people from registering as donors. Current findings state that no religion formally forbids organ donation [4]. In fact, the Catholic Church stated that organ transplantation is acceptable as long as it is with the consent of the donor and does not pose any risks to his or her heath. Additionally, Pope John Paul II has stated “the criteria for assigning donated organs should in no way be discriminatory or utilitarian.” On the other hand, some Orthodox Jews and Muslim ulemas/muftis have proposed organ donation only to members of the same religion. Despite the varying opinions of whom the recipients should be, no religion explicitly prohibits donating organs [5].tuteja2

Interestingly, the study also found that the biggest obstacle was not a religion’s provisions on organ donation. Instead, the largest factor was what relationship an individual had with the religion’s supreme being. The concept of “God’s will” was an important one to those who felt that their body was given to them for a reason and God did not want their organs to keep on living [4]. Rather than defying the will of God by giving away their organs, many opted not to become organ donors.

Many of the participants were concerned about parts of their body being separated and did not want part of their body to go to heaven while another part remained alive in a recipient. They wanted to be buried whole so that in their afterlife their body would remain whole [4].

The emotions behind becoming an organ donor are another reason many people shy away. An “ick factor” causes an individual to feel disgust towards the thought of organ transplantation and decide not to donate. The “jinx factor” is the feeling that by signing up to become an organ donor, an individual is hastening, or jinxing, his or her own death [6]. Furthermore, the relationship between the “body” and “self” is an important one for many people and can cause people to be opposed to organ transplantation. Some believe that your body, and therefore your organs, is a part of your identity. Donating your organs would be like losing a part of who you are and therefore a part of your identity [6].

In deciding to become an organ donor, an emotional concern shared by many individuals is whether or not donating will allow them to have an open casket funeral and be seen by their loved ones. Even if organs are missing, a donor still can have an open casket funeral because all incisions are closed and the doctors involved treat the body with the utmost respect [7].

There are a multitude of reasons why out of the 320 million people living in the United States only roughly 37 percent are organ donors. However, with enough knowledge and proper education on the topic, more and more individuals will come to recognize that their fears about organ donation are mere misconceptions, and that by simply carrying a donor card they can save an average of 8 lives at no harm to themselves [1].


[1] “The Need Is Real: Data.” Accessed December 23, 2014.

[2] “Organ Donation and Transplantation Fact Sheet.” Accessed December 22, 2014.

[3] Horton, Raymond L., and J. Horton, Patricia. “Knowledge Regarding Organ Donation: Identifying and Overcoming Barriers to Organ Donation.” Soc. Sci. Med. 31, no. 7 (1990): 791-800.

[4] Davis, Cynthia, and Randhawa, Gurch. “The Influence of Religion on Organ Donation and Transplantation among the Black Caribbean and Black African Population – a Pilot Study in the United Kingdom.” Ethnicity & Disease 16 (2006): 281-85.

[5] Bruzonne, P. “Religious Aspects of Organ Transplantation.” Transplantation Proceedings 40, no. 4 (May 2008): 1064-67.

[6] Vincent, A., and Logan, L. “Consent for Organ Donation.” British Journal of Anaesthesia 108, no. S1 2012): i80-i87.

[7] “Organ Donation Facts.” Accessed December 8, 2014.

Image References:

[1] Human Organ for Transplant. Photograph. Accessed December 28, 2014.

[2] Donate Life. Photograph. Accessed December 28, 2014.


Jasmine Tuteja is a freshman at the George Washington University, majoring in Biological Sciences. Follow The Triple Helix Online on Twitter and join us on Facebook.