Organ Donor Scandals

It is everyone’s worst nightmare. You are at the hospital with your sick child. The doctor tells you there is only one option. Your child’s life can be saved by a transplant. All you have to do is sign the consent form. No parent, of course, would refuse.

What, then, if the doctor says that your child has died, but another child’s life can be saved if you consent to your child’s organs being used for a transplant? There is simply no moral way that a parent who is willing to consent to an inward transplant can refuse the outward transplant.

But most countries face a shortage of organs for donation. This is a terrible scandal. People of all ages die as a result of this shortage. Yet the only ‘scandals’ reported in the media are the ones that kill no-one and save hundreds or thousands of lives.

Another has emerged in the UK in recent weeks. The Health Secretary has apologized because details of people’s organ donation preferences were mis-recorded by the National Health Service. People who had registered their permission for some organs to be used and others not had all their organs used. This follows a scandal a few years ago in which organs were taken without permission from bodies, including those of children, at the Alder Hey hospital in Liverpool.

This columnist wholly endorses the idea that parents should have been asked, but is staggered by the idea that anyone but the most absurdly superstitious could even have considered saying no. Of course the preferences of organ donors with regard to specific organs should have been respected: confidence in the system breaks down if they are not. But who are these people who are willing to donate some organs but not others?

The principal reason for a lack of life-saving organs is that most people simply never register their permission. But for what possible reason would someone go to the effort of registering that they are willing to donate a kidney but unwilling to donate a liver?

In both Britain and America organs cannot legally be used without the permission of either the deceased person (given in advance, of course) or their next of kin. Where no registration of the dead person’s preferences has been made, medical staff must ask permission of the next of kin. They must do this immediately if the organs are to be of value. That means asking the relatives almost as soon as you advise them that their loved one has died, which is extremely distressing for all concerned.

Spain has a different policy: presumed consent. Everyone is presumed to have given consent for organ donation unless they specifically register that they do not wish their organs to be used. This columnist has always believed that anyone who does this should be ineligible to receive any organs they might themselves need.

Only one country – Israel – has a policy of putting registered organ donors at the top of the waiting list to receive organs should they ever need them. But is the Israeli policy not only common sense but a moral imperative? No-one has ever put a coherent moral case which says “I should be able to benefit from other people’s organs but no-one should ever benefit from mine”. As for donating some organs while seeking to preserve others for the worms, that is insanity.

Article provided by Quentin Langley Lecturer in PR and Political Communications, School of Journalism, Cardiff University

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