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Organ donations on death row

Filed by Quinton Chandler in Feature, Local News, News.
December 20, 2013

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State Representative and now gubernatorial candidate Joe Dorman has championed a lot of issues this fall including putting storm shelters in schools, but another one of his proposals brought about an actual ethical controversy: allowing inmates to donate organs before they are executed.  KOSU’s Quinton Chandler reports.

 As of last month here in Oklahoma there were about 900 people waiting for at least one organ to surface out of a pool of about 1.6 million registered donors. The gap seems huge but Jeff Orlowski CEO for LifeShare of Oklahoma says it’s not wide enough.

“I would say to people who say you have 1.6 million on the registry while there are only 900 people waiting is that every year you have 65 or 70 people in Oklahoma waiting for an organ that never comes.”

Nita French knows exactly what it’s like to wait and watch for a donor. Years fighting diabetes and the delivery of her first baby put her name on the list for two organs.

“After I delivered her they told me that I was going to need a transplant and I waited two years and two months and I received a new kidney and a new pancreas.”

Me: Did you ever think you would be waiting on an organ donor list?

“No, never. I never dreamed.”

“You go to bed every night praying that the phone will ring during the night and you can be healthy again and you wake up in the morning and spend the day hoping that sometime during the day the phone will ring.”

Nita’s patience eventually paid off but for many others the phone never rings. Just last year 62 Oklahomans died on the waiting list and this year so far we’ve lost almost 40. Representative Joe Dorman says those lives are the reasons why we should discuss allowing death row inmates to register.

“I think that’s criminal that we don’t have enough opportunities out there to help save people’s lives and then we’re just going to outright deny this discussion when individuals want to do this.”

Here’s Ryan Holmes with the Markula Center for Applied ethics. He acknowledges this is about saving lives and it may give prisoners a chance at redemption but he says there’s a problem with how doctors would get the organs.

“When we’re talking about taking them from deceased individuals there isn’t a concern about doing harm to the donor. But, when you’re talking about taking them from a donor who is alive then you really are doing harm.”

Here’s Dorman’s response.

“Individuals who are kept on life support, when their organs are harvested they have a living will. They have a document saying that they wish to have the plug pulled and I see this as a similar situation.”

But, even if doctors agreed with that assessment looking for organs on death row might not be practical. For one thing there’s the risk of passing on diseases like HIV and Hepatitis through transplants.

“For the last 25 years there have only been two cases when HIV was transmitted from an organ donation out of thousands of transplants. So it’s possible to effectively screen. But, it’s not possible to completely eliminate risk.”

And even if the risk is acceptable we’re not talking about a large number of donors.

“There may not be a lot of organs to be donated from anyone there especially from the few people who are set to be put to death.”

“Small number of donors, small number of organs from those donors makes for a very expensive program and that same money spent increasing the number of Oklahomans on the state registry would have a far greater impact.”

The inmate donor idea would mean money spent pushing the legislation on the state level, lobbying Congress for a change in law, plus building the facilities for the transplants and the costs go on. Jeff says with only 1-3 inmates scheduled to die a year. 3 or 4 organs a year is probably the best the program could do. He suggests focusing efforts on the general public.

“If you increase registrations by 10% we’re looking at another 12-15 organ donors at three and a half organs per donor that would be anywhere from 40 to 50 more organs.”

To get that 10% he says legislators could make registering for organ donation an option you see more often and in more places. Not just in the tag agency every few years. And he also suggests changing the law to allow those access points to provide information on the biggest questions surrounding organ donations.

“As a human being if you don’t understand something you’re going to be afraid of it more than likely. And I meet a lot of people who are just that.” “They’ve heard some pulp fiction. Things like they’re going to take my organs before I die, or I can’t have an open casket, or it costs money.”

With about 65% of the population registered, Jeff already considers Oklahoma to be one of the more generous states in the country, but we can do better, and he says using death row inmates isn’t the way to go. Even if Dorman’s bill doesn’t make it to the House floor he says it will at least start a discussion on whether prisoners have a right to donate.




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