April 18, 2024

Nuffield Council launches organ donation consultation

Should the UK set up an organ bazaar?

Should we expect more people to
donate organs, eggs and sperm and, if so, how far can we ethically go in
encouraging them to donate? The Nuffield Council on Bioethics, the UK’s leading
bioethics thinktank, has launched a three-month public consultation about
donation of organs, sperm, eggs and other human material for medical treatment
and research. A report will be published towards the end of 2011.

Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern, the
chair of the inquiry, said: “We could try to increase the number of organ
donors by providing stronger incentives, such as cash, paying funeral costs or
priority for an organ in future, but would this be ethical? Women can already
get free IVF treatment from private clinics to encourage them to donate eggs,
and healthy volunteers may be paid significant sums of money to ‘donate’ their
bodies to test new medicines for the first time in humans. We want to explore
why the rules are different for different kinds of donation.”

Paying people, beyond covering
expenses, to donate most kinds of organs and tissue for use in medical
treatment is currently illegal in the UK. However, some people are travelling
abroad to get organ transplants and fertility treatment in countries where this
is more widely available, either because of different laws or because of
illegal markets. The extent of ‘transplant tourism’ is not fully known.

“Perhaps we should accept that we
can only do so much to meet the ever increasing demand,” said Professor
Strathern. “We also need to think about the morality of pressing people to
donate their bodily material. Offering payment or other incentives may
encourage people to take risks or go against their beliefs in a way they would
not have otherwise done.”

The current system relies upon
altruistic donation. But the demand for organ donors has increased in recent
years, due to an ageing population and improvements in medicine. Around 8000
people are waiting for an organ transplant in the UK, and there is currently a demand for roughly 1200 more egg donors and 500 more sperm donors, says the
Nuffield Council.  Scientists also
need people to donate human tissue for research.

“We ourselves or one of our
relatives may one day need donated organs or tissue, and most of us are likely
at some point to use NHS medicines that have been tested on healthy volunteers
or human tissue. Given this, perhaps donating parts of our bodies should been
seen as a moral obligation for all of us,” said Professor Strathern. ~ Nuffield press release, Apr 20

Michael Cook
organ donation