Harvesting Organs on the Edge of Death

organs_090803_mnOver the past 15 months, news on the bioethics front has been heating up as the long-standing practice of the “dead donor rule” (DDR) has been increasingly challenged by prominent medical ethicists.  Up until recently, best practice in the medical industry has demanded that a donor patient be declared legally dead before doctors can begin to harvest any organs from his or her body.  But as the numbers of patients on transplant waiting lists continues to swell, doctors are beginning to reconsider their traditional stances and new ethical frontiers are being broached.

In January of 2012, the highly regarded Journal of Medical Ethics published a paper by professors Walter Sinnott-Armstrong (Duke University) and Franklin Miller (National Institute of Health).  According to the abstract:

”What makes an act of killing morally wrong is not that the act causes loss of life or consciousness, but rather that the act causes loss of all remaining abilities.” [1]

In other words, these men are trying to argue that if no useful abilities remain in the patient on the edge of death, doctors should be allowed to begin harvesting the patient’s organs as soon as the heart has stopped, even if efforts to revitalize the patient have not be performed.

Now, in the most recent issue of Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, Walter Glannon, Research Chair in Medical Bioethics and Ethical Theory at the University of Calgary, has entered the fray by arguing as follows:

“It is not the timing or declaration of death that matters morally in this type of organ donation … This position rejects the conviction that whether donors are harmed depends upon when death is declared and that procuring organs before this declaration always harms them.”

What Glannon is arguing here is that there might be cases where the patient could regain consciousness or even cases where it is unsure as to whether the patient will certainly die “where it still might be permissible to harvest the organs.” [2]

What do you think?  If a patient is on the edge of death, but has not yet passed away, might it be permissible to begin harvesting organs, particularly when seconds count as to the viability of the organ in question?

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5 Responses to Harvesting Organs on the Edge of Death

  1. Richard Armour says:

    Hate to admit it but this is why I’m not an organ donor on my drivers license. I don’t trust the donor “industry” to give my wife or children accurate infomation on my condition should I get in a life threatening accident. My wife knows she can donate any usable organs I have left on her decision. Besides, that alone should insure that I always treat her like the treasure she is.

    • While I know I shouldn’t be, I’m honestly a bit shocked by the unadulterated pragmatism that is on display in these articles. To define the “worthiness” of a human life by what they can or cannot contribute to society is a startling move that leads to open doors I can’t imagine anyone wants to see us pass through.

      And as for you decision to not be an organ donor, I can’t say that I am surprised, for I wondered if this sort of thinking might inevitably lead to people choosing exactly what you have already chosen.

  2. jennifereaby says:

    This is really challenging subject and I too do not subscribe placing a value on life based on that life’s societal contributions. That being said, I have signed up to be an organ donor and should something happen to me where there is no reasonable (and I know that’s hard to define) chance of me living on my own (without the use of life sustaining machines), then I have asked my husband to “pull the plug” and have signed a living will to that effect. In that sort of circumstance, I do not wish to be a financial and emotional burden on my family. And as a Christian I would rather be present with the Lord than “not fully present” here on earth. I know that this doesn’t speak exactly to the topic of your post, Scott. There is something about harvesting organs prior to death that just seems wrong. But the pragmatist in me, if I were the patient and could speak for myself, would probably agree to it. If I’m about to die and there is a very slim chance of my recovery, I’d rather someone else get the chance to live. But that’s just me.

    • I think the problem here is the trajectory of the thinking. If we’re not sure that you’re going to die, and we begin to evaluate your life based upon your useful abilities, what prevents us, as a society, from beginning to prey upon the weak and the helpless, by evaluating the life of a well-to-do transplant recipient over and against the life of a wellfare mother?

      • jennifereaby says:

        I understand that. I think that WHO determines the answer matters. As a society, we should not answer that question for another. I speak from another angle: is it immoral of me to say beforehand that if I am the patient in a certain situation where death is *almost* certainly near, I would allow my organs to be harvested? But I agree: we should never as a society take that matter into our own hands and render one life less worthy to live than another.

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