Transplanted corneas are a window to the soul

A fascinating note on the social meaning of eyes and why people are much more reluctant to donate the cornea after death than other bodily organs.

From a recent article in the journal Transplanatation:

At the time that a patient is diagnosed as brain dead, a substantial proportion of families who give consent to heart and kidney donation specifically refuse eye donation. This in part may relate to the failure of those involved in transplantation medicine and public education to fully appreciate the different meanings attached to the body of a recently deceased person.

Medicine and science have long understood the body as a “machine.” This view has fitted with medical notions of transplantation, with donors being a source of biologic “goods.” However, even a cursory glance at the rituals surrounding death makes it apparent that there is more to a dead body than simply its biologic parts; in death, bodies continue as the physical substrate of relationships. Of all the organs, it is the eyes that are identified as the site of sentience, and there is a long tradition of visual primacy and visual symbolism in virtually all aspects of culture.

It therefore seems likely that of all the body parts, it is the eyes that are most central to social relationships. A request to donate the eyes therefore is unlikely to be heard simply in medical terms as a request to donate a “superfluous” body part for the benefit of another. That the eyes are not simply biologic provides one explanation for both the lower rates of corneal donation, compared with that of other organs, and the lack of adequate corneal donation to meet demand.

What’s interesting is that the operation to remove the cornea does no visible damage to the donor. It’s just the idea of the thing that puts people off.

Link to locked article on eyes, meaning and cornea transplants.

7 thoughts on “Transplanted corneas are a window to the soul”

  1. I’m surprised there’s no mention of another dynamic at work: the vast difference in the consequences of the transplants. A heart or liver transplant saves lives, while a cornea transplant restores sight. The weight on one’s conscience in the extremity of the situation is vastly different, when weighed as either _preventing_ a _loss_ of _life_, vs. _granting_ the _gift_ of _sight._ I’d imagine that many people who might otherwise refuse organ donation would be far more moved by the opportunity to save a life, especially since they are dealing with exactly such a loss at that very moment. Such people might be moved to generosity with the appeal for a heart or liver, but would retain their original tendencies when the consequences are not life-saving.

  2. I am a registered organ donor. But I have not signed my corneas to be taken. I just don’t like the idea of it. I think it stems from not having to look at my lungs/heart/liver everyday. I’m familiar with my eyes, in a safe zone maybe?
    It’s like your ‘special possession’, one that doesnt really matter but you don’t want to lose it.

    1. That’s completely bonkers. I hope that one day you lose your sight when there is a shortage of cornea donors you selfish toad!

    2. 50fifty50,

      I’ve been sitting here trying to think of a response to Sally, when I now realize that the one I actually need to address is you. Like Sally, I disagree with your choice, but unlike Sally, I respect your right to make your own decision. If you reconsider one day, I would be very happy, but if not, I hope your choice does not inflict suffering.

      I would never wish you blind.

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