Can Catholics Donate Their Bodies to Science?

(photo: Register Files)

Quite frankly, I was appalled when I discovered after my mother’s death that she’d donated her body to the state medical college.

She’d told my siblings and me years ago that she intended to donate her body “to science.” But, with my mother’s flair for dramatics, we assumed it was another attempt at grabbing attention, and so we appeased her and then carried on with life.

We were wrong.

I was informed of mom’s decision when I got the call from the retirement home that she’d passed away in the early morning hours. She had indeed donated her body for scientific research, and as I spoke with the home’s social worker, the body has already been taken to a funeral home in preparation for its journey to the medical college.

It was a done deal.

Without a body, there cannot be a funeral, and so my siblings and I arranged a Memorial Mass and reception for our mother which, if I do say so myself, turned out to be most beautiful.

But that didn’t stop the tongue-cluckers from ogling at our situation or the gossips from trying to stir up scandal about our family.

A Catholic donating her body to science? Is that even allowed?

It is.

I researched the subject after I learned of my mom’s donation.

A Catholic donating her body for scientific research is not only allowed, but considered a noble act when it’s done for the true common good. That means it must be done in the spirit of service to other human beings and not for financial gain or product research (commercialism).

“Organ donation after death is a noble and meritorious act and is to be encouraged as an expression of generous solidarity,” the Catechism of the Catholic Church states. (CCC, 2296)

Donation of one’s body falls under the same teaching.

St. Pope John Paul II was clear about the merits of donating one’s body to science when he addressed the participants of the Ninth Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life on February 24, 2003.

He said, "…all, believers and non-believers, acknowledge and express sincere support for these efforts in biomedical science that are not only designed to familiarize us with the marvels of the human body, but also to encourage worthy standards of health and life for the peoples of our planet" (ibid., n. 2).

When a person donates his or her body to science so that medical students can study and acquaint themselves with the human body, it is completely in line with the teachings of the Catholic Church. These students learn from the donated bodies so that they then can go on to become researchers and healers of other human bodies.

In the same address, St. Pope John Paul II went on to say, “The Church respects and supports scientific research when it has a genuinely human orientation, avoiding any form of instrumentalization or destruction of the human being and keeping itself free from the slavery of political and economic interests" (Address to participants in the Ninth General Assembly of the Pontifical Academy for Life, 24 February 2003, n. 4).

Was it difficult for me to have my mom donate her body to science? Indeed, it was. I would have preferred a funeral and burial with all the bells and whistles.

However, once I learned what the Church actually teaches and turned a deaf ear to the whispers and clucking tongues, I found peace, even gratitude, for the gift mom has given to others.

For more information on the Catholic doctrine and guidelines surrounding this subject, see also this article on EWTN News by moral theologian William E. May.