CARDIFF, November 10, 2011 ( – The Welsh government has put forward a proposal that would allow hospitals to remove patients’ organs without their direct consent or the consent of their families.

Under current rules, people voluntarily opt in to organ donation by signing on to the organ donor registers. The proposed law would change the rules to allow doctors to presume consent unless the person has specifically said they did not want to donate their organs.

The Anglican archbishop of Wales, Dr. Barry Morgan, opposed the measure, saying the law would make peoples’ organs “assets of the state.”

UK Health Minister, Lesley Griffiths, defended the idea, saying she could not foresee situations in which doctors would take organs without the consent of families.

However, the proposal says clearly that doctors should “sensitively encourage relatives to accept the deceased’s wishes, whilst making it clear that the relatives do not have the right to override those wishes.”

Griffiths commented, “Repeated surveys show the majority of people in the UK and Wales believe in organ donation, but only one in three people in Wales have joined the organ donor register.

“Last year 67 per cent of donors were not on the organ donor register. Therefore we believe creating an environment in which donation is the norm and will enable more organs to be available.”

Presumed consent organ “harvesting” is a popular trend due to the scarcity of transplantable organs and the hesitation of the public to voluntarily put their names on the lists, prompting a number of governments around the world to try to adopt the measure.

Pro-life ethicists have been increasingly sounding the alarm about organ transplants, saying the only way to obtain suitable vital organs is to remove them from living patients. This problem has been skirted in the world of secular bioethics simply by redefining death. In many jurisdictions, “death” is now declared when a patient’s heart has stopped beating for five minutes or less, or when he is declared “brain dead,” the definition of which remains largely subjective and differs widely from place to place.

In the UK, the criteria used are neither “brain death” nor cardio-pulmonary cessation, both of which have been condemned by pro-life ethicists. In Britain “brain stem death” is the criteria accepted, which many, though not all, pro-life ethicists regard as true death. Proponents argue that if the brain stem is dead, both the brain and the cardio-pulmonary system are dead, since the brain stem is necessary for both.

Despite the ethical quagmire organ donation seems to be stuck in, organ “harvesting” in general continues to enjoy widespread acceptance, even at the Vatican, on the grounds that organ transplants save lives that would otherwise be needlessly lost. Because the public remains dubious, however, governments have stepped in to create the “negative billing” type of policy that allows doctors to remove organs without the time-consuming process of convincing relatives their loved ones are sufficiently dead to “harvest” their organs.

While the opt-out proposal is a dead letter at Westminster since the defeat of the Labour government, it is also being introduced in Northern Ireland whose devolved parliament has jurisdiction over health matters. Last month, Edwin Poots, the Northern Irish Health Minister, said he intends to raise the possibility of presumed consent.

This prompted warnings from pro-life watchdogs. Anthony McCarthy with the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, said, “It is worrying that the minister is opening the door to the idea that the state, ultimately, owns people’s bodies after death.”

He called presumed consent “an oppressive attitude” and “an affront to human dignity which undermines us all.” The proposal, he said, “undermines the idea that human body parts are not like any other exchangeable commodity,” and reduces the human body to “mere property.”

With the popularity among ethicists for changing the definition of death to allow organs to be removed from living patients, McCarthy warned, “it is irresponsible in the extreme to further empower the state to remove the organs of those unable to speak for themselves.”

Liam Gibson of SPUC Northern Ireland said, “This is a worrying development and SPUC will be writing to the Minister and the Attorney General regarding the ethical concerns which would arise from a change in the law to facilitate the presumed consent of potential organ donors.”


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