By Hilary White and Steve Jalsevac

TORONTO, February 16, 2006 ( – In 1999, reported that Ontario’s Conservative government was planning to introduce high-pressure organ donation to meet the shortage of human body parts for transplants. In April of the same year, the House of Commons Health Committee, an all-party committee, recommended that greater pressure be put on Canadians to agree to have their organs removed immediately after death for transplant into others.

This Thursday, seven years later, Ontario New Democrat MPP Peter Kormos is introducing a Private Member’s bill that proposes making organ donation automatic for everyone unless they have previously ‘opted out’ of the system.

Kormos said the plan “will help ease the organ donation crisis”.

Private member’s bills are rarely passed but in this case the governing Liberal party’s Health Minister, George Smitherman, is also backing the bill. Smitherman stated, “There obviously needs to be a public discussion about this, and that’s why I’m supportive of the bill at least for that reason … (but) I don’t think everybody’s ready for that.”

“Public opinion is changing,” Kormos said. “More and more people are coming to the same conclusion – presumed consent will mean more transplants and more saved lives.”

Supporters of the bill say more than 20 European countries have already implemented similar legislation which has substantially increased the availability of human body parts in those countries for transplantation into persons needing replacement organs.
  Under existing law, people who want to become organ donors must state in advance that they wish to donate their organs; but the NDP bill will require that people who do not want to have their body parts removed after a brain death assesment will all have to make a deliberate opt out of what is otherwise presumed consent.

The NDP is assuring that the bill “protects individual choice,” saying that individuals may still be allowed to decide that they do not want their organs harvested.

The ethics of organ donation has come under increasing scrutiny as pressure mounts on health systems to secure organs and to have them from the least dead bodies possible. The reason for this is that most human body parts, in order to be useful for transplantation, must be taken from a still warm, artificially kept alive, though presumably “brain dead” body.

The medical establishment, which re-defined pregnancy in the 1960’s to promote the use of abortifacient contraceptives, has also re-defined death to accommodate organs being harvested from people who are “dead” only in a very narrowly defined sense. Around the world, “brain death”, a largely undefined condition, is considered sufficient to remove a patient’s organs while the heart and other functions are still working and the patient often looks very much alive.

In September 2005, Walter Glannon, a clinical ethicist at the Children’s and Women’s Health Centre in Vancouver said that ethicists were becoming concerned that patients will be used as organ farms without their consent.

“The concern is that the removal of organs for transplant will take precedence over the (donor) patient.” Glannon said. “Life support,” he said, “may be removed prematurely, without going through the medical and ethical protocol.”

Dr. Michael DeVita, a critical care physician at UPMC Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, said, “It gets worse when you’re going to withdraw life support and then procure organs. People get more and more concerned that you’re going to be caring for people who are dying inappropriately just to get at their organs.”

Public opinion is not the only thing that has been changing in recent years. Medical ethics is developing away from patient-oriented decision-making on end of life issues. In jurisdictions where assisted suicide and euthanasia are legal, in many cases the patient’s wishes or those of her family are overridden by doctors or hospital ethics committees who have their own self interest agendas.

In one case in the UK, a man with a progressive neurological disorder, Leslie Burke, unsuccessfully sued the National Health Service to ensure that he would not be starved and dehydrated to death should he be rendered unable to communicate. The NHS won the suit on appeal arguing that being refused permission to kill Mr. Burke when his “quality of life” was considered too low to sustain it, would have undermined the NHS’ ability to allocate its financial resources.

NOTE: tomorrow will present questions to a medical expert on the brain death and organ harvesting issues. If readers would like to submit questions please email them to [email protected]. The questions and answers will be published on

Read related coverage:
  Gov’t May Pressure Canadians to Donate their Organs
  Organ “Harvesting” Policy in Canada to Allow Terminal Patients to be Killed for Parts?
  Catholic medical authority raps ‘brain death’ criteria
  Russian Surgeons Removing Organs Saying Patients Almost Dead Anyways


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