Kidneys and Controversies in the
Islamic Republic of Iran: The Case
of Organ Sale
DIANE M. TOBER
Iran is the only official Shi’a Islamic country, with Ithna-Ashari, or Twelver
Shi’ism, as the dominant form. For various reasons, in part due to the interpretive
approach to jurisprudence in Ithna-Ashari Shi’ism, but also due to other aspects
of Iranian culture, the Iranian approach to medical science and technology is
dramatically different from that in most other Islamic countries. In Iran, what is
and is not considered Islamically acceptable is constantly being renegotiated
depending upon social, political, economic and technological conditions. This
kind of flexibility, and often pragmatic approach to social problems, has major
positive and progressive implications for health policy on numerous levels.
However, the drive to embrace new technologies and capabilities can also precede
or override ethical deliberations. Drawing on fundamental religious and ethical
debates within the country, as well as interviews and observations in an Iranian
transplant center, this article investigates Islamic discourse, perceptions of life,
death and the body, and the case of organ sale/donation in Iran.
This article is based on a qualitative pilot investigation conducted in 2002 in
Shiraz, Iran. Interviews were conducted with health professionals working in
Body & Society © 2007 SAGE Publications (Los Angeles, London, New Delhi and Singapore),
Vol. 13(3): 151–170
‘The final, definitive version of this paper has been published in Body and Society, Vol.
13(3):151-170, 2007 by SAGE Publications Ltd. SAGE Publications, Inc., All rights reserved.
transplant centers, with recipients of donated organs from living related (LR) and
living unrelated (LU) donors, and with living commercial donors themselves,
using a semi-structured, open-ended format. Observation was also conducted at
Shiraz University of Medical Sciences, in the Namazi Hospital Organ Transplant
Ward. This ward is arguably the largest and most successful kidney transplant
ward in Iran and in 2002 was the only center which also conducted liver transplants.
1 Iran is of particular interest in the transplant world because it is the only
country where there is an official, state-sponsored system of financial remuneration
for kidneys and liver portions from living unrelated donors.
Numerous scholars have addressed the commodification of the human body
within the global economy, and the consequences for both the individual and for
social relations. Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ ground-breaking work on the trafficking
of human organs has revealed a global trade, where the poor individuals and
nations are exploited by the wealthy ones (2000, 2002a, 2002b). Appadurai
discusses in detail how ‘commodities, like persons, have social lives’ (1986: 3). Yet,
when the commodity is in fact part of a person, its social life takes on a new
meaning, where the giver and the receiver are in some way transformed as a direct
result of the transaction. As Sharp demonstrates, the social construction of the self
– including notions of kinship as well as individual body boundaries – is fundamentally
altered through organ transplantation (Sharp, 1995, 2000, 2006). Furthermore,
the sale of human body parts, tissues and cells forges an uncomfortable
relationship between ‘gifts’ that are altruistically given and ‘commodities’ that are
bought and sold, blurring these distinctions and, in fact, forging a new category
of ‘gifted commodities’ (Tober, 2002). This article addresses how these debates are
formed and policies enacted in the Iranian social, religious and medical landscape.
The last two decades have seen major advances in medical technologies. The
emergence of these technologies – such as reproductive technologies and gamete
and embryo donation, human cloning, stem-cell research, genetic testing, euthanasia,
life-sustaining respirators and so on – have led to redefinitions of life and
death. In the West, where many of these technologies were initiated, the
emotional and moral disputes surrounding their use have been substantial. The
response throughout the Muslim world has been equally fraught with ethical and
religious concerns, and with similar lack of consensus. Throughout the Muslim
world these debates have centered on: (1) Does the use of the technology in
question violate Islamic principles? (2) How can the technology be used in an
Islamically acceptable way? Fatawa, or religious declarations, on these modern
issues vary among the different Islamic sects, or schools of thought. These rulings
are differentially cloaked in the language of Islam, and actually reflect local
customs, cultures and moral sentiments.
152 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
Marcia Inhorn’s (2006) work comparing Sunni and Shi’a approaches to gamete
donation and infertility treatment in Egypt and Lebanon points to how different
Islamic interpretations of what is permitted (halal) influences state reproductive
policies and individual practices. Other research on the differences between
Afghan and Iranian acceptance of Iran’s family planning program similarly
demonstrates how the use of reproductive services corresponds to different
interpretations of what is and is not considered Islamically – as well as culturally
– acceptable (Tober et al., 2006). From this work, we are beginning to understand
how sectarian and cultural similarities and differences in the Islamic world impact
daily life and policy decisions.
Negotiating Bioethics, Medical Fatawa and Health Policy
Iran’s approach to technology and health is different from that of much of the
Islamic world in a variety of ways: donor embryo and donor egg (but not donor
sperm) are permitted, as are most other reproductive technologies, and vasectomy
and tubal ligation (as well as other family planning methods) are promoted.
In many other Muslim countries, however, sterilization is prohibited because it
is considered to ‘harm’ the body. Recent laws on abortion in Iran have also been
passed permitting the procedure in the first trimester if it can be shown that
having a child could cause the mother emotional or physical harm, or if the fetus
is ‘deformed’ or diseased. In Iranian interpretation of Islamic Law, abortion is
legal before ‘ensoulment’ occurs – before the onset of the second trimester.
Needle exchange programs have been implemented in prisons and on the streets
in order to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS, and programs promoting sexual
health education and prevention of STDs have been targeting Iranian youth. Iran
has also set up the only system whereby living unrelated organ donors are
permitted and given financial incentives by the government.
The Iranian approach to medical technology and health policy has been
remarkably progressive in most areas, controversial in many. What is it about
Iran that makes its approach to these issues so different from most that of other
parts of the Muslim world? A possible answer to this question comes from an
interview with a well-respected Shi’a clergy in Isfahan, Seyyed Shahnazeri:
In Iran our jurisprudence (fegh) is more dynamic (pouya) than Sunni fegh because we use
reason or intellect (‘aql) and Sunni rely more on strict readings of religious texts. According
to the Prophet Mohammed, intellect was the first thing created by God, so it is our responsibility
to always use reason and be flexible.. . . Because of this, in Islam we also really emphasize
science. It’s very important for all Muslims. We know that many things have been discovered
since the time of the Prophet. We have to adapt to that. Therefore, for Shi’a and other Muslims
it is a duty to advance our knowledge and make scientific advances and discoveries. For Shi’a,
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 153
though, the difference is we can be more flexible in using and pursuing new science and technology
because we can adapt the religious texts to modern society through our own interpretations and intellect.
Because Islam, and particularly Shi’a Islam, emphasizes science and new thinking, there is no challenge
between religion and science. If new things come, Islam should be able to accommodate – there is no
Shahnazeri’s comments resonate with a widely held view in Iran regarding the
perceived flexibility of Shi’ism compared to Sunnism. That is not to say that
other Muslims do not also use various methods of logic in Islamic jurisprudence,
but Iranians definitely perceive their own system as more flexible and dynamic
when it comes to scientific and technological advances and incorporating these
advances into daily life. A brief foray into the formation of Iran’s policies
surrounding gamete and embryo donation provides a further example of how
decisions are negotiated in practice.
A 2006 conference on Gamete and Egg Donation in Iran, sponsored by the
Avesina Research Institute demonstrates the dynamics of ethical deliberations
and how health policies are formed. Iran, as the center for Shi’a jurisprudence, is
often viewed as the policy-maker in the Shi’a world by issuing fatawa on what
is considered religiously permissible. The agenda of the conference was not only
to discuss the range of work that has been conducted on donor egg and embryo
in the Islamic Republic and beyond, but rather to bring together a group of
experts to address the range of issues, in order to help form official public policy
regarding the use of reproductive technologies and donor gametes and embryos.
Presenters at the conference included: leading clergy from both conservative and
reformist factions, legal scholars, physicians/fertility specialists, psychologists,
sociologists, demographers and a few medical anthropologists (including myself).
Representatives from other Islamic countries, like Bahrain, were also sent in
order to report back to their own governments how policies surrounding egg and
embryo donation were being formed in Iran – possibly setting the trend for other
While most of the practicing specialists perceived that the range of infertility
treatments did not pose a problem for Shi’a Islamic bioethics, there was considerable
disagreement among Iranian religious scholars as to whether or not third party
donations were Islamically acceptable, with many conservatives rejecting
the use of third-party donation and reform-oriented religious leaders accepting
its use. The Bahrain contingent attending the conference (who were also Shi’a)
viewed the Iranian recommendations as violating some basic Islamic principles
surrounding the creation of family. They were particularly upset by Iran’s acceptance
of the use of donor gametes and embryos, as were some of the more conservative
Iranian Shi’a clerics, as the use of donor gametes complicates definitions
154 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
of maternity and paternity, as well as Islamic inheritance laws. The physicians
from Bahrain were also frustrated, as they had hoped that Iran would provide
them with recommendations that they could incorporate into their practice;
however, they did not feel that they could ethically suggest third-party donation
to their patients as it went against their religious views. Ultimately, the Avesina
conference helped to formulate Iran’s current laws permitting gamete and
embryo donation. The conference thus served as a tool for negotiating policy by
bringing together medical practitioners, specialists and religious leaders. This
format has been used for negotiating other policies surrounding health and the
use of technology in the Islamic Republic as well.
Interestingly, in the case of gamete and embryo donation, donors are to remain
forever anonymous. Policies surrounding organ donation, however, require that
donor and recipient identities are not only released, but donors and recipients also
meet and can opt to continue contact after transplantation. Thus policies for transacting
one type of bodily product (genetic material) are not consistent with other
types of bodily products (organs) – though both are perceived as gifts of life.
Further, Iran’s policies toward third-party gamete donation requiring donor
anonymity are contrary to such policies in many Western countries, where donor
identity release is strongly advocated if not required. This fact points to fundamentally
different constructions of family, ‘children’s rights’, identity, privacy and
inheritance in these different cultural settings.
Although the two major schools of Islamic thought are typically considered to
be divided between Shi’a and Sunni sects, within each branch there are numerous
subdivisions. The notion of what is ‘Islamically acceptable’, then, has a high degree
of variability both between and within Sunni and Shi’a Islam. As discussed above,
Iran’s approach to the entire range of bioethical issues has been unlike that of other
Islamic countries, and is not always in agreement with decrees set forth by prominent
Sunni Muslim clerics, or even Shi’a clerics from other Muslim countries.
In Iran, the drive to utilize available technologies can heavily influence the
outcome of ethical deliberations and religious declarations. Policy shifts occur in
response to social and technological advances, as well as social and economic
necessity. While Islam is invoked as a conceptual framework from which to rationalize
and validate policy decisions, it is not necessarily always the driving force
behind such decisions.
Fatawa can emerge before, concurrently or even after technologies and medical
procedures are utilized. Physicians who want to utilize controversial technologies
and procedures often incorporate them into their practices first and then
address the religious, ethical and legal implications after the technology is already
in use. The eventual development of official policies surrounding religiously
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 155
controversial technologies and treatments is due to the collaborative efforts of
physicians, legal scholars and religious leaders. Furthermore, as will be demonstrated
with the case of Iran’s approach to organ transplants, these policies change
over time, based on these continued conversations. The result is that physicians
who want to use various technologies to treat their patients work together with
religious leaders to establish new medical fatawa declaring the technology to be
permissible, as well as lobbying members of Parliament (Majlis) to pass new legislation
to determine policy surrounding their use. I will now discuss Iran’s current
system of organ transplantation and sale as one example of how religion and
medical technology and treatment have been negotiated in the Islamic Republic.
Decisions surrounding the parameters of medical treatment and medical
ethics in Iran must, necessarily, conform to the Islamic principles as determined
by leading (Twelver) Shi’a clerics. The leading figures in this regard include,
Ayatollah Sayyed Rouhollah Khomeini, Sayyed Muhammad Ali Araki, Sayyed
Muhammad Reza Golpeigani and, later, Ayatollah Khamene’i, Iran’s current
religious leader. These religious leaders, and others, decide what is and is not
permissible according to Shi’a Islamic law. Both cadaveric and living organ
donations have been ruled permissible as long as they comply with the following
1. Removing an organ from the body of a dead non-Muslim in order to
transplant it to the body of a Muslim is allowed and does not necessitate
payment of diyeh (blood money).
2. Removing an organ from the body of a dead Muslim is allowed if:
a. Saving the life of another Muslim is dependent upon receiving the organ
from the body of the dead Muslim. Normally, no diyeh is paid.
1. If the dead had voluntarily agreed to donate his organs, no diyeh is paid;
2. If the deceased had not agreed to donate his organs removing his organs
is not allowed. Anyone undertaking such an act would be sinning and is
liable for diyeh.
3. The guardians of the deceased have no right to give consent to an organ
donation from the deceased (Tawdih al-Masa’il, Ruling 2882).
3. Removing an Organ from a Living Person is permissible under following
a. The life of the patient depends on receiving the organ,
b. To the extent possible the organ should be sought from the body of a
c. The life of the donor will not be jeopardized as a result of donating the
156 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
It is permissible to donate and transplant organs like kidneys if the above
conditions are fulfilled . . . (Istifta’at, vol. 2: 43–5).
Buying and selling organs: In the event that the above conditions for organ
donation are fulfilled, it is not unlikely that one be allowed to sell his organs in
his lifetime (Tahrir al-Wasilah, vol. 2: 163, ruling 4).
Based on these decisions, Iran became the only country in which the compensation
of living organ donors is not only legal, but also facilitated by the government.
Although many other Islamic countries, including Saudi Arabia, Pakistan,
Egypt and Kuwait, permit transplants from living unrelated donors, financial
compensation is strictly prohibited and determined to be against Islamic law. Still,
private arrangements for compensation between donors and recipients do exist.
In Iran, every living donor receives a stipend from the government to compensate
the donor for their time and their sacrifice. In 2002, living related (LR) and
living unrelated (LU) donors both qualified to receive 1 million toman (a little
over US $1233) in compensation; by 2006 the compensation for a kidney increased
to 5 million toman, or around US $6000. Families of cadaveric donors do not
receive this stipend. Aside from compensation from the Iranian government,
living unrelated donors and recipients also typically negotiate a fee to be paid to
the donor by the recipient, usually matching or exceeding that paid by the
government. Living related donors typically do not receive money from their
family member as their motivations are to help out a loved one.
According to some, Iran’s system of organ donation is an attempt by the Iranian
government to practically solve several problems plaguing Iranian society: rising
unemployment and poverty, poor outcome for dialysis patients and the black
market in organs (Ghods, 2006). Yet there is no evidence of a black market in
organs in Iran preceding the development of the current system; indeed, others
argue that the black market emerged after the development of the current system
(Zargooshi, personal communication 2003). Like other aspects of Iranian governmental
and medical institutions, the system of organ donation and sale in Iran
has been negotiated within a particular Iranian Islamic framework, and with
cooperation between health officials, physicians, legal and religious scholars,
leading clergy and the state.
In 1995 the Iranian Parliament (Majlis) rejected the use of brain-death criteria for
organ retrieval and transplantation. A major concern was that, by accepting definitions
of brain death, abuses could occur in which the life of one person would
be prematurely sacrificed to save the life of another. Concerns were also raised
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 157
that poor people would be prematurely removed from life support to save the
lives of wealthier patients in need of organs, creating an enterprise in cadaveric
At the same time, Iran began to recognize that it had a poor system of managing
patients suffering from kidney disease, accompanied by high rates of kidney
disease and a very poor survival rate for hemo-dialysis patients. In response to
this problem, in 1996, Iran initiated a program to compensate living donors for
their organs. This program was developed in response to a perceived shortage of
organs available for transplant, and was designed to encourage organ donation
by offering financial incentives. The program had to pass through the Iranian
Parliament, and was almost unanimously approved. The Majlis, which a year
earlier had rejected definitions of brain death for the procurement of cadaveric
organs, had now approved a system in which living donors could sell their organs,
providing the rationale that living people have bodily autonomy, whereas dead
people do not. This notion of bodily autonomy diverges from the view of many
Muslim religious scholars (especially Sunni), who hold that God owns the body
and that the person inhabiting it has a responsibility to maintain its integrity.
In 1998, Iran’s first organs bank was founded due, in large part, to the efforts
of Fatemeh Rafsanjani, daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani. It was
not until April 2000, four years after the Majlis had rejected brain-death criteria
for transplants, that the Iranian Parliament gave preliminary approval to a bill
legalizing organ transplants from brain-dead donors (Transplant News, 2000).
Accompanying these events, former president Rafsanjani and other high-ranking
clerics, had made many public declarations that organ donation was
permissible in Islam. To an audience of legal and medical scholars, former president
Rafsanjani declared: ‘The religious decree on this issue [organ transplantation]
was issued during the life of Imam Khomeini, and today the supreme leader
of the revolution [Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i] and a number of distinguished
religious scholars approve of it’ (IRNA, 1998).
Today, Iran’s organ donation system allows for living related donors, living
unrelated donors (both of whom are financially compensated by the government),
cadaveric donors (whose families are not compensated by the government) and
organ banking. According to Ghods, there are numerous cultural and logistical
barriers to the acceptance of cadaveric organ donation, yet living unrelated
donation has received wide acceptance: by the year 2000 more than 8400 transplants
were performed from living unrelated donors (LURD), comprising 76
percent of total donations (Ghods, 17:2:22). By 1999, the system of financial
compensation for living donors had reportedly eliminated transplant waiting lists.
158 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
Yet, the argument that there are fewer cultural barriers to living donation than
cadaveric donation is debatable; it is possible that living unrelated donors make
up the majority of donations both because donors receive financial incentives and
because this system has been aggressively promoted over cadaveric donation (see,
for example, Zargooshi, 2001). Likewise, poverty and unemployment probably
also contribute to acceptance of living unrelated donations.
The Beniad Omoor-e Bimarihay-e Khas is a special government foundation
which assists people with kidney failure in getting dialysis treatment, provides
money and equipment to dialysis and transplantation centers, and helps support
kidney patients and others with special diseases. This foundation helped to set
up centers in every major city where potential donors and recipients could be
matched. The Anjoman Hemayyat Bimari Kolieh – Society for the Support of
Kidney Patients – not only aids in the treatment and social support of kidney
patients, but also helps coordinate donors and recipients. Potential donors will
typically go and register and wait until they are contacted by Anjoman. After
several tests are done to determine compatibility etc., the patient (or his/her
family) and the potential donor negotiate the fee.
One man, a commercial donor and mechanic in his mid-20s, discussed his trip
Donor: I went to Anjoman to register to donate my kidney. The people who work there had
some forms for me to fill out, then they took blood to make sure I was healthy and so they
could find a match. They told me I was doing a very good thing by helping another person
and that God would bless me and my family. I left, and within a few weeks they called me and
said they found a match. I met the woman they said would receive my kidney and she seemed
nice. They ran more tests and within a few weeks I was here in this hospital.
Interviewer: Is she paying you, or just the government?
Donor: She’s a farmer’s wife . . . lives in a village. She doesn’t have much money.
Interestingly, though the Iranian system is based on a commercial market, it is
not only the wealthy who have access to donor organs. Organ recipients come
from all socio-economic classes; although unrelated commercial donors come
from primarily lower socio-economic backgrounds.
Some donors do not ask for much beyond what they get from the government;
others receive at least another 1 million toman on top of the fee paid by
the government. It has also been reported in Iranian newspapers that many
potential donors line up outside Anjoman, hoping to find wealthy people in need
of kidneys who may be willing to make private arrangements; such reports were
also confirmed by several donor and recipient informants. These private arrangements
– outside of the government established centers – are not sanctioned by
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 159
the Iranian government and constitute a ‘black market trade’ in organs that is
considered illegal in Iran. The government program was designed to regulate
organ trade in order to prevent the exploitation and abuse of potential donors in
the black market.
Diyeh, Nafs and ‘Harm’ – the Question of Bodily Autonomy
Diyeh and Transplants
In Islamic law, there is a long-standing tradition in legal disputes of compensation
for body parts or loss of life, known as diyeh, or blood money. In Iran, for
example, there is a system of formalized financial compensation for various
transgressions. If someone hits and breaks another person’s nose, the victim can
go to court and ask for diyeh (compensation). The cost for a broken nose is
800,000 toman (US $1000). There is a different amount of compensation depending
on the offense and the injury, as well as different costs associated with different
limbs (e.g. a leg has more value than an arm).
Diyeh applies to everything, from loss of life to domestic violence, and any
other kind of trauma inflicted on one person by another. Also, in Islam, a wife
can collect payment from her husband for housework, as well as for breastfeeding
their child. Interestingly, in Iran, according to some, the practice of paid
wet nursing has been seen as analogous to paid organ donation (Ghods, ????)
because the wet nurse is typically of lower socio-economic status yet is highly
regarded for her sacrifice for another human being to whom she is not biologically
related. Yet unofficial discussions regarding wet-nursing in Iran reveal that
many Iranians feel wet nurses to be ‘low-class’ and inferior. There is some
evidence that organ vendors are stigmatized as well (Zargooshi, 2001a).
As mentioned above, in cases where an organ is removed from someone who
is brain dead, if the person had not authorized organ donation while living the
person removing the organ must pay diyeh to the deceased’s family members.
Likewise, if a family member of the deceased authorizes organ donation, they
must pay diyeh to other members of the deceased’s family if they object to transplantation.
Thus the notion of financial compensation for body parts, kidneys
and other organs is logically consistent with an underlying Islamic system in
which different parts and products of the body have a corresponding monetary
value. In Iran, then, the idea of compensation for body parts – whether through
injury, labor or organ donation – is consistent with Islamic principles. Other
Islamic sects (e.g. Sunni) do not necessarily apply the concept of diyeh to organ
donation, and forbid the practice of paid donation, emphasizing that donation
should be motivated solely by altruism.
160 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
According to an anonymous transplant surgeon, though:
Many people do this because they need the money. We are very concerned about drug addicts
selling their organs to buy more drugs. The government does not agree with these transactions
but since a person has authority of his own body, if he wants to sell a kidney he can.
This surgeon acknowledges that, for some people, ‘selling their organs is like a
business’. He states that the Iranian Ministry of Health does not promote sale of
organs among living donors because of the complications that can arise following
organ donation. However, by emphasizing bodily autonomy, the decision of
whether or not to sell one’s organs is ultimately left with the individual, with the
government as only the facilitator for the transaction. This notion of bodily
autonomy is in direct conflict with most Sunni positions, that the body is owned
by God and one does not have authority to sell parts of it.
Nafs and Brain Death
Definitions of brain death have been problematic in the Muslim world. This
controversy centers on the Islamic/Qur’anic views of the person (or nafs), which
rejects the Cartesian dichotomy between mind and body. In Iran, a person who
is still breathing is considered to still be a living person. In this view, if a person
has not yet completely died – cessation of breathing and heartbeat – then he or
she is still alive. At this point, religious leaders and the Iranian Parliament
rejected the idea that one’s brain could be dead while their body was still living.
In Iran, the use of cadaveric donors has been far more controversial than the
living donor program. In part, this is due to Islamic prohibitions and rules
governing the body, based on the notion of the unity of the person, or nafs. For
example, autopsy, or any cutting of the body of a dead Muslim, has generally
been prohibited. Autopsy has been permitted only in cases where the medical
knowledge provided by the autopsy could help save the life of a Muslim or a
number of Muslims (Tahrir al-Wasilah, vol. 2: 624; Tawdih al-Masa’l: ruling 2878),
for example providing knowledge of a contagious, but treatable, disease. Theoretically,
this ruling permitting autopsy in some instances could be expanded to
permit cadaveric organ donation, given that such a procedure can preserve the
life of a Muslim.
There has been extensive debate in both Iran and in other Muslim countries,
surrounding both the permissibility of cadaveric organ donation in Islam, as well
as the acceptability of ‘brain death’. These debates occur among both Shi’a and
Sunni religious scholars, and have yet to be resolved. In Iran, the debates
surrounding the use of ‘brain-dead’ cadaveric donors has centered on (a) the
notion that an unconscious person does not possess the faculties essential for
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 161
determining authority over their own bodies and is thus unable to give consent,
and (b) that determination of ‘brain death’ could be made too hastily in order to
procure organs for transplant. Leading clerics wanted to ensure that the bodies
of ‘brain-dead’ patients were not abused.
Harm and Bodily Autonomy
In Islam in general it is considered a sin for one to harm one’s body. In Iran,
organ donation among living donors is not considered harmful because a person
can survive with only one kidney. Many other Islamic countries (e.g. Egypt,
Pakistan, Saudi Arabia) do allow ‘altruistically motivated’ living donation, as it
helps to save the life of another, but paid donation is considered to be against
Islamic principles. In these circles, the argument is that God designed and has
authority over the body, the inhabitant of the body has the responsibility to
properly maintain it, and that one cannot sell something one does not own.
According to Dr. Shiri, former head of the Organ Transplant Unit in Isfahan:
In Islam, one of the first priorities is that we are not allowed to harm our bodies. The donor
has to be 100 percent certain that he wants to do this, and that he will not suffer unnecessarily
because of this – that he will not harm his body. Since people can live well with only one
kidney, or only a partial liver, organ donation meets this Islamic principle.
The notion of harm, however, is problematic: to what degree do donors really
understand the potential harm to their bodies after donation? What is the process
of informed consent? According to Dr. Javad Zargooshi, a urologist who has
conducted extensive interviews and surveys with hundreds of donors from
several weeks to several years after transplantation, 85 percent would choose not
to donate again after having realized the adverse affects that selling a kidney
would have on their lives (Zargooshi, 2001a, 2001b). Most male donors, who
worked as day laborers, reported they were not able to work as well after transplantation
because they were ‘weak and tired’, and are thus financially worse off
than they were before transplantation. Research in India demonstrates that potential
donors don’t understand the ramifications of kidney donation, and are told
by transplant physicians and staff that they are at very low risk for complications,
since they could survive perfectly well with one kidney (Goyal, 2001). Goyal also
demonstrates that over 80 percent of donors did not understand the function of
the kidney and believed that, since they had two, one was extra. How can
someone assess the potential harm to their body, when they do not completely
understand the function of the organ they are selling?
162 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
Ideal vs Actual Sources for Organs
According to Dr. Shiri, most organ donation in Iran is from cadaveric donors who
have met the criteria for brain death, as confirmed by five specialists. Cadaveric
donors must meet the following criteria: brain death, beating heart, no diabetes,
malignancies or history of kidney disease, no high blood pressure, and be between
the ages of 18 and 55.
Aside from medical criteria, there is one major social criterion: that donor
and recipient should be of the same nationality. Dr. Shiri addresses a recent case
of an Afghan man who had been pronounced brain dead. The transplant center
contacted the Ministry of Health in Tehran to get permission for organ transplantation.
Permission was denied because his ethnicity was not the same as the
recipient (who was Iranian). According to Dr. Shiri, the reason behind this policy
is to avoid exploitation of the poor, and because the deceased does not have the
power to have authority over the body that living people have. Among living
donors, since they do have the power to have authority over their body, ethnicity
and nationality are not an obstacle to organ transplantation arrangements. Thus,
the restrictions put in place to protect the brain dead are not applied to the living,
who are assumed to have bodily autonomy.
Data from several sources demonstrate that most donors are living unrelated.
In 1997 between 68 and 76 percent of organ donations were from living unrelated
donors (Broumand, 1997). More recent data, from Shiraz Transplant Unit,
showed 84 percent of transplants were from living unrelated donors as of 2001.
Although Dr Shiri states that the preferred source of organs is first
from cadaveric donors, second from living related donors, and third from living
unrelated donors, in practice, the actual sources for organs are the reverse: living
unrelated donors and living related donors are the primary sources for organs,
while cadaveric donors fall far behind.
The Transplant Ward – Namazi Hospital, Shiraz
Ethnographic fieldwork was conducted in a transplant ward at Shiraz Namazi
Hospital. This unit is the largest transplant center in Iran for kidneys, and in 2002
was the only center that also conducted liver transplants. Here, I interviewed the
head nurse, transplant staff, physicians, and several donors and recipients.
This particular ward has received a lot of funds from wealthy Arab donors
whose family members come for kidney transplantation. Much of the equipment
– computers, ventilators and other state-of-the-art equipment – were bought
with Saudi money.
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 163
According to the head nurse:
Saudi Arabians[DB1] come here very, very often – especially in summer. Because all of the
[DB2]patients from Saudi Arabia are on vacation, during summer they have free time and they
come to Iran to be operated on. And the majority of patients who come from Saudi Arabia are
children . . . children and second transplants. After the first transplant, if they have rejection,
they come here for their second operation. For example, one patient, the first renal transplant
was done in the Philippines and it was rejected. And after that he moved to Iran for his second
transplantation from an LUR donor . . .
The Saudi patients who come here are very wealthy. Very wealthy. And all of the money for
transplantation expenses that they have paid has given this ward more flexibility and
equipment. You see this refrigerator – every room has one – they’re paid for from our Saudi
patients. The patient paid a lot of money and I spent it on facilities for the rooms – refrigerators,
respirators, computers, even dialysis equipment. All of the computers here are because of
Saudi money. OK? This ward is very rich because of the Saudi patients.
Although a great deal of the funding supporting organ transplant centers
comes directly from the Iranian government, foreign funds – particularly from
neighboring Islamic countries, where kidneys are in short supply – also provide
substantial financial assistance. Despite official Iranian claims that the Iranian
organ transplantation system is designed only for Iranians, ‘transplant tourism’
has a definite impact on both the flow of organs, and the flow of funds, between
countries. Patients from other Muslim countries, where it is illegal to buy and
sell human organs due to Islamic interpretations forbidding the practice, travel
to Iran to buy their organs there. In fact, one informant who was considering
selling a kidney stated that she hoped she could find a Saudi recipient, because
they are reputed to pay more money.
Recipients were interviewed between one day and six months post-op, and were
asked questions about the arrangements they had made with the donor, how they
felt about their bodies, how they felt about the donor, and related questions. All
of the recipients said they thought God would look upon the donors with
compassion, and that they would be rewarded for their deeds. Many of the
recipients talked about the donors with extreme gratitude. Saying they allowed
them to have ‘another life’ (zendegi-yeh dobareh). Feelings of kinship with the
donor is a theme that repeated throughout all the interviews, as well as the notion
of having another person living inside themselves, reframing one’s sense of self.
One man, Ali, said his 33-year-old female donor is like his sister, and states:
Because of her, I am comfortable (razi). My soul (jan) owes everything to her. From beginning
to end I owe her everything – do you know what I mean? I pray for her daily to God. I ask
God to keep her safe and to bring her good fortune – to Allah, az Khoda. Allah hu Akbar (God
164 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
is great!). Also many times I prayed for her husband, for his good fortune. I am very thankful
to him that he has made it possible for his wife to do this. He comes to see how I am.
Anything she asks for, anything she needs, I will give it to her. I gave them money, a gabbeh
(rug), things like this to make them more comfortable. It is the least I can do. She is like my
sister. She gave me her kidney. She gave me another life. These things I give them are nothing.
She is like more than family to me because part of her gives me life.
A husband who received a kidney from his wife also expressed unending
gratitude and a desire to do everything for her, along with the notion that it is
part of another person’s body that sustains them: ‘A part of my wife’s body is
keeping me alive. How can I repay such a debt? I will give her everything I can,
to make her life better. We are like one now.’
A 16-year-old boy, Amir, said he felt about his donor as if she were his mother.
He said when they met they had a strong bond, ‘like family’, and that they really
liked each other. In his mind, the main reason why she donated her kidney to
him was that ‘she had kind feelings for me and wanted to see me well’. He would
not disclose how much his family paid for the kidney. Other recipients also
expressed feelings of kinship and gratitude. Interestingly, most of the recipients
were working class and were not necessarily wealthy (although I suspect the
boy’s family was).
Interviews with recipients consistently reveal feelings of indebtedness to the
donor, as well as a sense of kinship. All recipients further emphasized the donors’
altruistic motivations over their financial motivations, in order to imbue these
life-saving transactions with higher meaning. It is important to note, however,
that most recipients were interviewed within days, weeks, or less than a few
months post-transplant, when feelings of gratitude and relief at being free from
dialysis are pronounced. As Zargooshi (2001a) notes, recipients who received
organs a year or more prior often expressed resentment toward their donors for
having high expectations for continued relations and compensation. One explanation
for this is that, if donors continue to make requests of the recipient for
long periods following donation, recipients may grow weary of continued contact
and demands. Another possibility is that, as recipients get further away from the
time of implantation, their new kidney becomes increasingly incorporated into
their own bodies and identity. They no longer perceive it as something that
belongs to someone else that is now in their own body; thus, the feelings of
kinship and indebtedness dissipate over time.
All donors were asked their reasons for donating, what financial arrangements had
been made, their satisfaction with their decision to be a donor, their sentiments
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 165
toward the recipient and his/her family, and related questions. Donors frequently
discussed a desire to help others, and hoped that the recipient would have a long
and healthy life. They did not express a desire to ‘get anything’ from the recipients
yet; in Iranian culture this desire would probably not be directly expressed
anyway. Further probing did demonstrate a need for money among the donors.
One woman was a donor because her husband was going to do it to earn money
but he could not because of a kidney stone, so she did it instead. The usual price
received was 1 million toman from the government and another 700,000 from the
recipient or their family. In dollars, a little over US $2000 – in a country where
an average living wage is between US $100–150 month.
Donors repeatedly emphasized the value of giving and helping others in Islam
as a strong reason for their decision. Some of the most often expressed reasons
for donation/sale of kidneys were the moral value of kheiraat (charity) and that
God would look kindly upon them for their charitable deeds.
Hassan, a 21-year-old mechanic, sold his kidney to a 53-year-old diabetic
woman. When asked why he sold/donated his kidney he stated:
I gave my kidney for God. I always wanted to do this in my life. . . . I’m giving another life to
this lady – another life.
Several of the commercial donors, like Hassan, above, expressed the donation/
sale of their kidney as being motivated by a belief that God will help them or
look upon them favorably for their personal sacrifice. Financial benefit was not
expressed outright as a motivating factor in the donation. However, all donors
were of low socio-economic status and, when probed further, indirectly expressed
a need for money to pay off their debts. Yet, as much of the cross-cultural research
demonstrates, paid donors often end up worse off financially as a result of
selling/donating their kidney and regret having gone through with the procedure
(see e.g. Budiani, this volume; Cohen, 1999; Goyal, 2002; Scheper-Hughes, 2000;
Zargooshi, 2001b). Since informants in this study were interviewed so soon after
their procedures, it is likely that they had not yet had the time to reflect negatively
upon their long-term experiences.
Altruism and Charity – Invoking God – Commodity/Gift Themes
Charity, kheiraat, is highly regarded (required) in Islam and in Iranian society.
Even when money is being transacted for organs, the emphasis by both donors
and recipients is on the charitable motivations for donation, as opposed to the
monetary motivations. In many of these transactions there is the belief among
both donors and recipients that donors will receive special attention or reward
from God because of their gift.
166 ■ Body & Society Vol. 13 No. 3
Gender also plays an important part. Records from Namazi hospital indicate
that all donors were of low socio-economic status, with the women being unemployed
and men primarily working as day laborers. The proportion of unemployed
women was significantly higher among living non-related than related
donors. In interviews with women vendors, most admitted that they had decided
to do this to help supplement the family income and that they did not want their
husbands to sell their kidneys because of the potential lost income. All of the
living non-related donors claimed to have altruistic motives for organ donation
initially, but on further questioning all of them also admitted receiving rewards
from the recipients that matched or exceeded the amount paid by the government.
Eight of the nine living non-related donors were in an economic impasse,
needing money urgently to pay outstanding bills. While women make up a larger
percentage of commercial donors, they also make up a much smaller percentage of
transplant recipients. Among living related donors, wives typically donate to their
husbands, but it is very rare to see the reverse, primarily due to concerns over lost
income. Brothers and sisters, on the other hand, donate to each other equally.
Iran’s system of organ donation was designed with the intention of providing
treatment and organs for those in need, by encouraging organ donation through
the use of financial incentives. Another intention was to eliminate the black
market in organs by creating a government-sponsored and regulated organization
in charge of coordinating donors and recipients. In these transactions,
money is given to the donor by both the government and by the recipients as
compensation for their time and sacrifice. The system in Iran is the first of its
kind, with the apparent intention of assisting the sick and the impoverished, as
well as providing financial compensation to the poor. This system of using a
government-sponsored agency to recruit donors has been successful in eliminating
waiting lists for kidney patients; however, it is not without controversy. Within Iran,
the ethical debates surrounding this system continue among both physicians and
Economists, including Nobel-laureate Gary Becker (2003), and professionals
within the transplant industry worldwide, suggest that a system of financial
compensation for kidney donors will increase the supply of much-needed organs,
thereby reducing the death and suffering of dialysis patients. In this literature,
Iran is often looked to as a model for other programs. Although such a system
would reduce the suffering and extend the lives of kidney and liver patients, it
creates another problem: the complications and long-term suffering incurred by
Kidneys and Controversies in the Islamic Republic of Iran ■ 167
donors, who are usually impoverished, are typically not considered. The apparent
success of the current system in Iran has been an impediment to establishing a
successful system of cadaveric donation, which has been much more controversial
than has the use of living unrelated donors for various reasons, many of which
are related to religious and cultural notions surrounding death. It is curious that
the arguments against cadaveric donation, citing fear of exploiting the poor, have
not been equally applied to the living. The notion of a living person’s autonomy
over their own body has provided the philosophical argument in support of the
LUD system over cadaveric donation.
Islamic principles have been invoked in arguments both for and against organ
donation. In circles where arguments are made against living and/or cadaveric
organ donation, the notion that the body belongs to God and that one is not
permitted to harm one’s body – since it is borrowed and does not belong to the
individual – are invoked. In arguments for organ donation, for example in Iran,
the Islamic principles of charity and self-sacrifice are emphasized, and compensation
for body parts is consistent with the practice of diyeh. While the principles
of charity and altruism are invoked, other Islamic principles, for example not
harming one’s body, are explained away: it is OK to harm one’s body in order to
save the life of another. Here it is believed that giving up one’s kidney to help
another will be looked upon kindly by God, and will lead to future reward.
In Iran, as well as the rest of the Islamic world, advances in medical technologies
have challenged fundamental, religiously based, bioethical principles, as well
as traditionally held meanings of life and death. Because Shi’ism emphasizes the
notion of ijtahad and ‘aql (or reason) in applying Islamic principles to daily life,
there is substantial room for a flexible interpretation of what is considered acceptable
within an Islamic framework. Although in some instances, for example in the
cases of family planning and reproductive technologies, this flexibility can lead to
relatively progressive health policies that overall improve individual and social life,
in other cases, such as financial incentives for organ donation, there is a need to
further examine the bioethical implications and ramifications.
1. On a return trip to Iran in 2006 I learned that liver transplants were also being conducted at
Tehran University Hospital.
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