March 1, 2024

Doctors call for revision of baby organ donation rules

UK paediatricians want the government to allow “brain-dead” newborns to donate organs.

UK paediatricians want the government to allow “brain-dead” newborns to donate organs. An article in the journal Archives of Disease in Childhood claims that many young lives could be saved every year if the rules were changed. There is “significant uncapped potential” for newborn organ donation in the UK, they believe.

“For an infant awaiting a heart transplant, only a small-sized infant organ can be used, whereas as children approach adolescence, an adult organ becomes a viable option,” the researchers say.

Under less rigid criteria in Europe, it is possible to transplant organs from new-born infants, so these are sometimes used in the UK. Dr Richard Kirk, a paediatric cardiologist told the BBC:

“They would be transplanted and home if the UK system was the same as in other countries around the world. There is a crazy double standard operating – it’s forbidden to declare a baby ‘brain stem dead’ in the UK and yet no-one minds us flying to Europe, where the doctors are allowed to diagnose brain stem death, and bringing the donated organs back to the UK to use. Where is the sense or ethics in that?”

Currently using organs from brain-dead children aged between 37 weeks and two months is banned. Donation after cardiac death is permitted, but for practical reasons this option is seldom used. Guidelines written by the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges in 1991 say that it is “rarely possible to confirm death using neurological criteria in infants under two months of age”. Since only organs from dead donors can be used ethically, therefore, UK paediatricians have been told not to transplant these organs. However, it is possible in Australia and the US.

Even if the criteria were changed, many bereaved parents would still refuse to donate their child’s organs. However, argues bioethicist Greg Moorlock in The Conversation, “A shift to this kind of approach with young babies would provide consistency, but would also provide grieving parents with additional options to find something positive in the death of their baby.”

Michael Cook
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organ donation