Donating a kidney

Thomas Kelly 3-2

by Thomas Kelly

On Easter Day of 2014, I was confirmed as a Christian, and later that year I donated my kidney through the National Kidney Registry. When people ask about the relationship between the two are, I’m not always sure how to answer. On the one hand, I had been interested in both organ donation and Christianity for a really long time, for reasons that felt completely independent of each other. Most Christians I know have both kidneys, and most kidney donors I know are not religious. On the other hand, it is unlikely to be a coincidence that these two major decisions in my life happened more or less at the same time. It also seems kind of churlish to say that belief in God didn’t affect my decision, after all, Christianity has a lot to say about doing good.

I’m really glad I donated my kidney. The surgery went really well, and the pain was less than I feared. I also believe that kidney donation is an effective way of benefiting others. At the cost of a few weeks off work and slight health risks, you could potentially save the life of someone in need – and at least drastically improve it. And if your donation starts a donation chain, you can help more than one person.

In 2014, I wrote an essay with fellow kidney donor Josh Morrison, arguing that altruistic kidney donation is a good choice from an effective altruist perspective. One argument we offered was that donating a kidney and talking about it might inspire others to donate their kidney or to care about the organ transplant shortage. I still think that’s true, but it’s an uncomfortable argument to make.  

When I was a kid I didn’t go to church, and I remember being jealous of my Christian classmates who got ash crosses on their head on Ash Wednesday. I wasn’t the only one. I was jealous of Lent, too, and at lunch we would talk about what we were giving up for Lent even though we weren’t sure why Lent existed. After I converted as an adult, Ash Wednesday became my favorite service. At the same time, I’ve always felt the traditional readings on Ash Wednesday which warn us not to fast conspicuously – to not fast so that everyone sees it and notices – was an odd combination with the practice of literally wearing our church attendance on the forehead.

I feel similarly about kidney donation. It’s such an unusual and visible way to do good that it receives more notice and praise than many things that do as much good. Sticking to a budget and clipping coupons so you have more money to give to charity is a really great thing, but it’s something people will never notice. If you raise a family, people will notice it and be happy for you, but won’t compliment you about your everyday sacrifices. In contrast, kidney donation is very attention-grabbing. I think Christians who donate their kidneys and promote kidney donation just have to hope they fall into the category of not hiding their lamp under a bushel and not into the category of already having their reward.

I don’t think Christians should donate their kidneys if there is a very real chance that a family member or neighbor will need a transplant in the future, and nor do I think that Christians should donate their kidneys if it would mean forgoing a pregnancy or donating a substantial amount of money to charity. Ultimately, I do think the number of people who should be willing to donate their kidneys is vastly greater than the number who require them.

I don’t want to say donating a kidney isn’t a big deal. It was a big deal to me. It’s a big deal to the recipients. And even today there are health risks associated with kidney donation. But the size of the sacrifice is worth it when you consider the great good a donation can do.


2 thoughts on “Donating a kidney

  1. Thanks very much for this. I appreciate in particular that you grapple with the issue of “being public about doing good”. So important that we are not held back by vague or questionable norms of avoiding anything that could in principle be seen as being-public-in-the-wrong-way.

    One question. This seems very wide: “I don’t think Christians should donate their kidneys if there is a very real chance that a family member or neighbor will need a transplant in the future.”
    Does “very real chance” refer to cases where one knows of a specific reason why someone might need a reason? Or is it just if one has a sufficiently large family so as to increase the chances that someone might need a kidney for some reason or other?


  2. It just occurred to me that on so many Sundays we pray after communion: “Through him [Jesus Christ] we offer you our souls and bodies to be a living sacrifice.” — I guess, this post encourages us to take that quite literally? 


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