Organ Donation: How to Decide, and Steps to Take

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on November 08, 2020

If you’ve given even a little thought to organ donation, you’ve taken an important step. Whether you choose to donate or not, coming to a decision helps you and your loved ones know what you want when the time comes.

People choose to donate for different and personal reasons. Some want to help in medical research. Others want to give their organs for transplant. As of August 2017, 114,000 people in the U.S. were waiting for an organ donation. One donor can donate up to 8 lifesaving organs.

Still, it can be hard to think about. If you decide to donate your organs, doctors will work just as hard to save your life. Your choice to donate doesn’t mean you get different or less care.

Also, you don’t need to think about your age and or any illnesses as you decide. Your doctors will figure out what can be donated.

I’m Not Sure. How Can I Decide?

As with any end-of-life matter, check in with people close to you. Talk to your family, friends, or leaders of your faith community. You can share your values, desires, and beliefs to get at what you really want. For another point of view, you can ask your doctor questions as well.

You may also want to talk to someone at what’s called an “organ procurement organization.” These groups are certified by the government. They help sign up new organ donors and take care of the process. They can give you more information about being a donor.

How Do I Make It Known I Want to Donate?

If you wish to do this, sign up on your state’s organ donor list. This is the first place a hospital checks to see whether you’re a donor. You can visit to find out how to sign up in your state.

You can also put yourself on your state’s list when you get or renew your driver’s license.

Next, tell your family and your health care agent what you want to do. Hospitals often check with family to see whether you’re an organ donor. If you’ve signed up on your state’s list, the hospital won’t need anyone else’s permission. Still, if your family knows what you want, they can fully and clearly support your choice.

You can also say you want to be a donor in your living will, but you’ll still want to register with the state and tell your family. Your doctors may not be able to get to your living will soon enough to act.

Can I Decide How My Donation Will Be Used?

You can choose to donate for transplant or research.

When you put yourself on your state’s list, you agree to donate for transplants. This means that people in need will get your organs, such as your heart, lungs, or liver. If any of them can’t be used, your state may use them for research, but that varies.

If you want all your organs to go to research, you usually make what’s called a “whole-body donation” to a place such as a medical school. You’ll need to speak with someone at the program about how to do this.

If you’d like to give your organs for transplant and the rest of your body to research, you’ll need to check with the specific program. Many take only whole-body donations. 

How Does Organ Removal Work?

Doctors first make every effort to save your life. But if they can’t, they check for brain death with a number of tests.

They consider you dead if they can’t detect any brain or brain stem activity and you’re no longer breathing.

Next, doctors take the organs and close up the surgical cuts. People in need very quickly get the organs that can save their lives.

If you wish to have an open-casket service, funeral directors know how to hide signs of the organ removal with clothing and special techniques.

Show Sources


National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization: “Communicate Your End-of-Life Wishes,” “How to Talk with Your Loved Ones.”

Mayo Clinic: “Organ Donation: Don’t Let These Myths Confuse You.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Learn The Facts.”

NIH, National Institute on Aging: “Planning for End-of-Life Care Decisions.”

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, “Terms and Topics,” “Organ Donation: The Process.”

Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services: “Frequently Asked Questions About Donation.”

Massachusetts Registry of Motor Vehicles: “Organ and Tissue Donation Frequently Asked Questions.”, part of U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.



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