November 30, 2022

Waste not, want not

The editor of the leading journal Bioethics, Udo Schulenk regards capital punishment as a “barbaric practice”, it seems a shame to waste potentially life-saving organs of executed Chinese prisoners. It is a classic example of utilitarian reasoning.

A recent editorial in The Lancet by American bioethicist Art Caplan severely criticised the Chinese practice of transplanting organs from executed prisoners. “Use of organs from executed prisoners violates basic human rights and also delays the development in China of ethical strategies for recovering organs,” he and his co-authors wrote. They also called for a boycott of China’s transplant system until the practice is banned.

However, the editor of the leading journal Bioethics, Udo Schulenk, politely disagreed on his blog in a recent post. He points out that the facts of the executions are not clear. And although he regards capital punishment as a “barbaric practice”, it seems a shame to waste those potentially life-saving organs. It is a classic example of utilitarian reasoning:

“given that China executes prisoners regardless of the organ transplantation issue, it makes sense to me that the organs of deceased prisoners are utilized to preserve human lives that otherwise would be lost… However, as long as the number of convictions in a country that executes prisoners on death row (as eg Caplan’s country, the USA does) does not increase as a result of demand for  transplant organs, I wonder why we should not use their organs to preserve human lives that otherwise would wither. This in no way condones capital punishment, it simply suggests that IF a country has capital punishment we should make the best of a bad situation.” 

Michael Cook
organ donation
utilitarianism