By Nancy Valko
Whether we are renewing our driver’s licenses, reading the news or watching TV, it’s almost impossible to miss the campaign to persuade us to sign an organ donation card.
But do we really know what we are signing?
While internet organ donor registration sites like Donate Life America and organdonor.gov still maintain that vital organs can only be harvested (the technical term for removal) after brain death (a controversial issue itself), a whole new category of organ donors initially called NHBD (non-heart beating organ donors) and later changed to DCD (donation after cardiac death) was added in the 1990s. This new pool of organ donors are patients who are severely brain-injured but not brain dead, on ventilators (breathing machines) and considered hopeless in terms of survival or predicted “quality of life”.
Organs from these patients are taken when families agree to stop the ventilator and allow doctors to take the person to an operating room where the patient’s organs are removed when (or if) the patient’s heartbeat and breathing stops for 2-5 minutes within a 1-2 hour time frame. If the patient does not die within the time frame, the transplant is cancelled because the organs are potentially damaged and the patient is then returned to a room to die without further treatment.
At first, there was some criticism of DCD on legal, medical and ethical grounds, especially after a 1997 segment of the TV show “60 Minutes” exposed the case of a young gunshot victim whose organs were taken by DCD but the medical examiner who conducted the autopsy said he believed the injury was survivable.
Nevertheless, this new kind of organ donation was deemed ethically acceptable in 2000 by the US Institutes of Medicine while unfortunately also finding “opinion is divided on the option of non-heart-beating donation for the patient who is ventilator dependent but conscious and who wants to stop life-sustaining treatment.“
As of 2015, DCD comprised 8.9 percent of all transplants in the US but the procedure is still little-known to the public.
The Dead Donor Rule and Imminent Death Donation
In 2016, UNOS (United Network for Organ Sharing), the organization that manages the nation’s organ transplant system under contract with the federal government, issued its decision on Imminent Death Donation, a policy that would take DCD a step farther to become virtual organ donor euthanasia.
Because “a substantial minority” of DCD donors fail to die fast enough in the 1-2 hour time frame for organ donation, UNOS was considering re-framing the issue as “the recovery of a living donor organ immediately prior to an impending and planned withdrawal of ventilator support expected to result in the patient’s death” to ensure better quality organs and avoid an unsuccessful procedure. (Emphasis added)
Not only would this language change DCD donors from dead donors to living donors, but this also effectively destroys the definition of Dead Donor Rule that states:
“The dead donor rule is an ethical norm that has been formulated in at least two ways: (1) organ donors must be dead before procurement of organs begins; (2) organ procurement itself must not cause the death of the donor. (Emphasis in original)
Although living organ donation can be ethical when a healthy person freely decides to donate an organ like one kidney to someone who has lost kidney function, this imminent death donation is entirely different because the donor’s organ is taken before a planned and expected death.
Writing in a 2013 New England Journal of Medicine article “The Dead-Donor Rule and the Future of Organ Donation”, a group of prominent doctors gave this rationale for abandoning the dead donor rule:
“Respect for autonomy requires that people be given choices in the circumstances of their dying, including donating organs. Nonmaleficence requires protecting patients from harm. Accordingly, patients should be permitted to donate vital organs except in circumstances in which doing so would harm them; and they would not be harmed when their death was imminent owing to a decision to stop life support. That patients be dead before their organs are recovered is not a foundational ethical requirement.” (Emphasis added)
The following year, a polling study in the Journal of Medical Ethics concluded that the American public is “largely in support of organ removal even though it causes death in this scenario.” (Emphasis added)
Although UNOS ultimately decided to shelve last year’s proposal to approve Imminent Death Donation “because of its potential risks at this time, due to a lack of community support and substantial challenges to implementation”, that decision may only be temporary:
However, apparently no bad ethical idea ever really dies when it comes to increasing the number of organs to transplant and now UNOS is currently considering “Living Organ Donation by Persons with Certain Fatal Diseases who Meet the Criteria to be Living Organ Donors”.
Thanks to the disability advocacy group Not Dead Yet (NDY), I was recently alerted to this new proposed organ donation policy change and read UNOS’ public comment proposal that describes such patients as having “a progressive, incurable, chronic disease that is fatal and will ultimately be terminal” and gives examples like Alzheimer’s and Multiple Sclerosis.
In its statement opposing the policy change, NDY points out:
“Yet the Committee seems to want to create a special subgroup of living donors to whom the normal rules governing living donations do not apply and whose deaths are of less concern than the deaths of other donors because these living donors are presumably anticipated to die soon anyway. The recommendations would promote overt and lethal discrimination between donors based on disability and perceived health status…
One example of the Committee’s biased double standard is while OPTN policy is not to accept persons as living donors if they show evidence of suicidality, it urges an exception for people with certain fatal diseases so as not to preclude people with plans for assisted suicide (where legal) from first undergoing a living organ donation. (pg. 10) …Surely, public confidence in the organ procurement system will not be enhanced by any policy proposal that hints toward a future in which organ euthanasia is accepted and promoted.” (Emphasis added)
Unfortunately, the short time frame for public comments on this new policy is now closed and UNOS apparently does not send out alerts to the general public. Also, to the detriment of the public, the media tends to publicize feel-good stories about donation rather than explore controversial policies.
Personally, I am for ethical donation of organs and tissues. Years ago, I volunteered to donate a kidney to a friend and our youngest grandson was saved in 2013 by an adult stem cell transplant.
But I do not have an organ donor card nor encourage others to sign one because I believe that standard organ donor cards give too little information for truly informed consent. Instead, my family knows that I am willing to donate tissues like corneas that can be ethically donated after natural death and will only agree to that donation.
The bottom line is that what we don’t know-or allowed to know-can indeed hurt us, especially when it comes to organ donation. We need to demand transparency and information before such policies are quietly implemented.