Anything but the Eyes: Culture, Identity, and the Selective Refusal of Corneal Donation

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Abstract

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.

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