The Board of Deputies has urged the Government to tread carefully if it changes the system of organ donation in the UK, reversing the current onus to opt-in and instead requiring people to opt-out.

The Board’s cautionary note came in response to Prime Minister Theresa May’s Conservative Party Conference speech last week, in which she said that the Government would shift “the balance in favour of organ donation”.

Marie van der Zyl, a Board vice president, said: “While, in principle, Judaism encourages organ donation in order to save lives, any changes must ensure that there is no risk of a person having their organs taken against their and their families’ wishes. This could obviously cause very grave distress at a sensitive time.”

She added: “The removal of organs raises religious issues centring on the point at which death is presumed to occur. The Government will need to consult carefully in order to protect freedom of religious practice.”

The Board is known to prefer the continuation of an “opt-in” process, with regular encouragement, to an “opt-out” process, but high-profile voices within the Jewish community would like to see the Government change the emphasis.

Marie van der Zyl

Marie van der Zyl

Last month Marsha Gladstone told Jewish News that she favoured an opt-out system 15 years after the death of her son, Yoni Jesner, in a terrorist attack in Israel. Yoni’s organs saved the lives of three people, including a Palestinian girl.

“I am absolutely in favour of it,” said Gladstone. “Everyone should be an organ donor. But there’s a misconception among Jewish people. A lot think that they’re not allowed to give their organs, that it’s not allowed by [Jewish] law, but it is allowed, definitely.”

While there is a range of views across different Jewish denominations, Orthodox Judaism holds that organs may not be removed from a donor until death has definitely occurred, but there are varying views about what constitutes “death”.

Yoni Jesner and Marsha Gladstone

Yoni Jesner and Marsha Gladstone

Some traditionally-observant Jews accept the “brain stem death” criteria, and therefore the heart and lungs can be transplanted as well as other organs. Other Orthodox authorities will only agree to removal of organs from a “non-beating heart” donor, which reduces the range of usable organs.

The decision to move to an opt-out system would mirror a decision taken by the Welsh Assembly in 2013. At the time, the Jewish community expressed considerable concern about protecting the role of family consent throughout the development of this legislation.

In order to make it easier for Jews, and members of other faiths with similar beliefs, to donate their organs, a short statement has been drafted which commits to the principle of donation but clarifies that the potential donor and their family should be entitled to consult with their particular personal religious adviser before consenting.