Friday 1 August 2008

Serious concerns over organ donation

Organ donation is on the political agenda and, in particular, the matter of donors' consent. At present, you need to indicate that you'd be happy for your body-parts to be used for transplantation when you die. This is reasonable and makes sense. Organ donation can be a good thing, but it's not a duty on all of us to do it. The pressure is now on, however, for people's consent to be assumed. The British Medical Association (BMA) are among those calling for this. If you didn't want to have your organs re-used, you'd have to make a statement to that effect. And if you didn't know anything about the issue, your organs could just be used. The BMA recently expressed disappointment when Welsh politicians decided against such presumed consent.

The current Faith magazine includes an article on organ donation by Mr Bernard Farrell-Roberts of the Maryvale Institute, a Catholic college in Birmingham, England. He points out that the Catholic church says that explicit consent is needed, and that John Paul II warned prophetically in 2000 that a shortage of organs could mean that there would be calls for presumed consent.

If consent is presumed, Mr Farrell-Roberts says, the state has rights over our bodies after death. If that same state changes the definition of death, we could end up having organs taken from us while we're still alive. In Brazil, the number of available organs actually dropped once presumed consent was introduced. The article describes the problems associated with ascertaining when a person is dead.

Brain death is one criterion used for harvesting organs, but Mr Farrell-Roberts points out that Dr David Jones of St Mary's College, Twickenham, Middlesex, and others increasingly dispute that someone can be brain-dead yet have a beating heart. There is even talk of recovery after brain death. Other research suggests that life endures for a good while longer than assumed by at least some transplant surgeons. The author writes: "… the possibility of recovery may well still exist when organs are being removed for donorship."

Mr Farrell-Roberts concludes that there is much uncertainty about when a person is truly dead. Testing for death could even cause it! He points to new scientific advances, such as adult stem cell research, which could mean that fewer donated organs are needed.

His most chilling conclusion is that we can't presently be sure that, if we are donors, we can be confident that our organs and tissue will be removed following our deaths in an ethically acceptable manner. This means it's crucial that:
  • we oppose all attempts to presume consent to organ donation
  • researchers find better ways of ascertaining death
  • governments legislate to protect the sanctity of life.

I can't do the article justice, so do read it here.