03/07/2013 11:41 BST | Updated 03/09/2013 06:12 BST

Presumed Consent Organ Donation: The Government Has Just Nationalised Your Body


I used to carry an organ donation card in my wallet. In the event of my death, I would be overjoyed at the thought of my organs giving someone else a chance of life. That is a choice for me to make; it is my decision and my gift. It is my liberty, and the liberty of my loved ones, to decide what happens to my body. The idea that the government should presume to harvest my organs - without my express permission - is a dangerous one. It crosses a big red line. The government doesn't own you, your spouse, or your child - whether living or dead.

The Welsh Assembly has just voted in favour of presumed consent for organ donation. Yes, you can opt out if you wish (although if the opt out systems for email lists are anything to go by...). Yes, if your wishes are unclear, your relatives can have a say (but not the final say). Yes, I believe it will increase the number of organs available for transplant. Yes, organ transplantation does save lives and I have no objection to the principle of transplanting an organ (I have some big worries about the practice, but I'll come back to that in a moment). Nevertheless, despite these concessions, a great deal of power has just been given to the government in Wales to do as they wish with the bodies of its citizens.

If you live in Wales, the government has just nationalised your body. Unless you opt out, your organs belong to them now. How long before the state imposes quality control on your lifestyle? After all, a poor diet and not enough exercise could damage your organs; that won't help the nationalised organ transplant programme. I'm tempted to list some of the ways that the state could coerce you to live a healthier lifestyle - but they're already very familiar to us all.

Aside from the principles of individual liberty, I have a much more practical concern. It is this: organs are being harvested from patients who are not dead yet. Let me explain. To ensure the best chance of a successful organ transplant, it is important that organs are harvested while they're fresh. Doctors are keen to take organs from a body with a beating heart because the removal of the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys must be done before they begin to deteriorate due to the cessation of blood circulation. In Britain two doctors must agree that a patient is 'brain dead', though their heart continues to beat, before organs can be removed.

Some 'brain dead' organ donors are given a general anaesthetic before their organs are removed to suppress the body reacting to the physical distress of being cut into. Ever heard of a dead body being given anaesthetic? Secular ethicist Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University has said of these patients: "Defining such people as dead was a convenient way around the problems of making their organs available for transplantation, and withdrawing treatment from them." Medical ethicist, Michael Potts, has said: "Since the patient is not truly dead until his or her organs are removed, it is the process of organ donation itself that causes the donor's death."

There have been several cases of patients reviving just as the surgeon is about to plunge in with a scalpel to harvest organs. In November 2007, Zach Dunlap was pronounced brain dead by doctors at a hospital in Texas. He was scheduled to have his organs harvested when he began showing signs of life by moving his hand and foot. He then reacted to a pocket knife scraped across his foot and pressure being applied under his fingernail. After 48 days recovering in hospital he was allowed home.

In 2008, French newspaper Le Monde reported the case of a 45-year-old Parisian who had been declared dead after doctors had failed to revive him. Transplant surgeons had been called to harvest organs. It took an hour and a half for the surgeons to arrive, so medics massaged his heart in an effort to keep the organs fresh. When the surgeons began operating on the man to remove his organs, he began to breathe, his pupils became responsive and he reacted to a pain test. A few weeks later the patient was walking and talking.

As I said, I used to carry an organ donation card. But I don't do so anymore. That's a shame because I would be delighted if someone had the chance of life after I was dead - just as long as I really was dead. The trouble is, I don't trust the government to make that decision for me.


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