Kidney-cult transplant cancelled

Group members show devotion by donating organs

The Daily News, Canada/June 5, 2007
By Randy Boswell

Canada's largest organ transplant hospital has cancelled an operation that would have allowed a young Australian man to demonstrate his Christian faith by donating one of his kidneys to an ill stranger in Toronto .

The case has been tracked by an Australian film crew because the would-be donor, 22-year-old Ash Falkingham, of Sydney, belongs to the controversial Jesus Christians, the so-called "kidney cult," whose members believe that giving up an organ to save someone's life is an exemplary act of devotion to God and humankind.

Toronto General Hospital cancelled the scheduled transplant after accusations of religious brainwashing, appeals from Falkingham's mother and stepfather to stop the surgery, and extensive psychiatric assessments of the man after his arrival in Canada.

The decision has left the ailing Toronto woman, Sandi Sabloff, "kind of devastated," she said in an interview yesterday. "I'm not in good shape," she said.

She is consulting a lawyer "to see what my next step is going to be," and expects "to start looking for another donor."

More than half of the 30 members of the Jesus Christians - from Britain, Australia, Kenya and the United States - have provided a kidney to recipients around the world, the donations often a source of great ethical agonizing.

The group's Australia-based leader, 60-year-old David McKay, gave one of his kidneys in 2003 at Minnesota's Mayo Clinic, where a transplant doctor has said there was "much teeth gnashing" among hospital officials before the operation was approved.

In keeping with its policy of "absolute confidentiality," the Toronto General Hospital refused to divulge details about the Falkingham-Sabloff case. But hospital president Bob Bell said yesterday that when transplant decision-makers review any proposed surgery, "it is crucial that we maintain total unanimity" before a donation is approved.

"It's a difficult ethical determination," he said, noting that hospital officials must be convinced that "the person providing the tissue or organ is doing it purely for altruistic reasons - particularly if they don't know the recipient."

The story of the planned Toronto kidney transfer was detailed on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation documentary program Australian Story.

"When I tried to donate a kidney in Australia, there was this legal sort of hurdle that I had to get over, of forming a long-term friendship with my recipient," Falkingham said in one scene, according to a script provided by the ABC to CanWest News Service. "And so that's why I am going to Canada, going overseas to donate."

He arrived in Toronto before the scheduled April 30 surgery and met Sabloff for the first time since the two connected several months ago through a website called Living Donors Online.

Falkingham's offer to give Sabloff one of his kidneys was followed by regular e-mail correspondence as the two worked out details of the transplant.

But hospital officials postponed the transplant after Falkingham's mother, Kate Croft, raised alarms about her son's membership in the Jesus Christians and claimed that McKay had coerced Falkingham to make the donation.

"I do feel that Ash has been pressured," Croft says in the film. "I'm certain that the pressure to donate a kidney is one of the many pressures involved in being a member of this group ... I would say it's a cult. I would say it's a sect. I would say it's a madness."

McKay is shown rejecting the cult label and recalling his revelation about organ donation as a perfect demonstration of Christian charity:

"This is, like, the ultimate, you know? That I could actually save somebody's life was amazing. Even if it was only one, it was something I wanted to do because that is what we Jesus Christians were all about, is trying to help people."

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