Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Back From the Dead?

I think stories like this, about people being brought back from the dead, fuel unease about posthumous organ donation. People quite reasonably worry that, if they register as donors, they will be left for dead, when they could have been saved/revived.

It's worth emphasising that the story here is about cardiac death ("Most people regard cardiac arrest as synonymous with death, he says. But it is not a final threshold"). The definition of death used for organ donation is brain death. As the article goes on to say, "[Dr Jerry] Nolan stops short of saying that Carol was brought back from the dead. Hospitals do not declare death, he says, until they have ruled out all processes that can be reversed."

Nonetheless, this article serves to highlight the ambiguity and confusion surrounding death. Of course, public misunderstanding is somewhat to be expected, given current medical practice - e.g. the family may be informed that, since their relative is [brain] dead, doctors intend to turn off life support, in order to 'let them die'.

In the words of Dr Nolan, as quoted in the article, "We used to think death was a sort of sudden event - we stop the oxygen going to the brain and after a few minutes that was that. But actually, we know that the dying process at the cellular level goes on for a period of time". Our understanding of, and attitudes towards, death and dying are obviously crucial for organ donation (provided, of course, we continue to accept the assumption that it is only permissible to take organs from the dead, except in special circumstances).

Monday, 15 April 2013

Lab-grown Kidney

The reason for encouraging organ donation is to enable life-saving (and life-improving) transplants, but future technological breakthroughs might make this unnecessary. If scientists could produce artificial organs in labs, then we wouldn't need other people to donate their organs, since it would be possible to grow new organs to meet the demand.

This optimistic image may have come a step closer today, with the news that scientists have successfully grown a rat kidney. This is, however, only one step along a rather long road. The BBC article points to several unknowns, such as how long this artificial kidney will last. There's also the issue of cost: even if organs could be grown on-demand, if the technology is much more expensive than traditional transplants, then the latter are likely to continue. Finally, it seems that this particular mechanism requires an old organ in order to grow a new one, so this method will never avoid the need for donation in any case. That, I assume, is something that scientists will keep working on; in the meantime, donation is as useful as ever.

Sunday, 14 April 2013

An Economist's Perspective

Economist Tim Harford considers some of the measures to increase organ procurement and suggests the importance of asking people to give their consent. (Thanks to Chris Bertram for directing me to this, on Twitter.)

I think Harford is right to say that many people, given the opportunity, will consent, so it's a good thing to ask people's views when, for instance, they apply for driving licences. It's unclear, however, whether this is sufficient to address the organ shortage. It's interesting that one reason he offers for 'rejecting presumed' is that it will not assure relatives of their loved one's wishes. As he asks, rhetorically, "If we fill our donor registry with auto-enrolled donors, will that really persuade distraught families to support transplants?"

This is all very well, but the unspoken assumption here is that family consent should be needed, along with that of individuals. Granted, perhaps in the opt-out system he was considering, this makes sense: the family should have the option to express an objection that the deceased may have had but never registered (a 'soft opt-out'). The danger, however, is that such systems potentially allow the family to override the wishes of the deceased. There have been a number of papers (for instance, this one) arguing that, even in an opt-out system, we ought not to consult the family: that the absence of objection from the deceased should be sufficient to license donation.

The appropriate role, if any, of families and next of kin is something we intend to explore in the next RSE Workshop.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

Grayling on Respect for the Dead

There's a piece by A. C. Grayling criticising the notion of respect for the dead in the Independent. It isn't directly related to organ donation, since it's really concerned with the (im)propriety of speaking ill of Margaret Thatcher, but it occurs to me that 'respect for the dead' is a more general notion.

It's often assumed that we ought to respect someone's wishes concerning what happens to their organs after they die, hence why we give people the opportunity to record their wishes through donor registers and the like. It's sometimes pointed out that we don't think this respect, if demanded at all, is an absolute demand on us. Imagine a militant vegetarian who said that, after their death, they would like their rotting body to be left outside their local McDonalds, or something. We wouldn't feel any obligation to comply with these wishes, since we also accept that people's rights over their bodies can be circumscribed on grounds of public health (or perhaps even decency).

Unsurprisingly, there's much controversy about the implications of this for organ donation. Burying or cremating someone with their organs, which could have been used to save lives of those needing transplants, could be said to be similarly objectionable. That is, there's a case that could be made that, given what's at stake here, we ought to be prepared to override the wishes of the deceased. I'm not endorsing this position, just pointing out that we need to confront issues of the respect owed to the dead.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

UK Donor Increase

Organ donation is in the news today. Since the Organ Donation Taskforce, which reported in 2008, there's been a significant increase in the number of registered donors and, consequently, in the number of transplants performed.

This is welcome news, but it shouldn't blind us to the fact that demand still exceeds supply, with three people dying each day in the United Kingdom because of a lack of transplant organs (figure from the BBC article, linked above). It's important to consider ways in which we might continue to do even better, including for instance an opt-out system.

It's also notable that, according to the first article, "Last year, 125 families overruled an individual's intention to donate". The UK's present system allows relatives of the deceased to override his/her expressed wishes. Whether this is justifiable or not ought, I think, to be more debated. It's an issue that we intend to examine in the next RSE workshop.

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Reassessing the Need for Altruism

An interesting looking paper, forthcoming in the Journal of Medical Ethics, which questions the need for donors to be motivated by altruism. I explored some similar issues in a recent paper of my own. I assume that we'll be looking at motivations in a future workshop.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

First Project Meeting

The RSE-funded project on Organ Donation and Transplantation Policy officially began last month. Since the plan is to use this blog to document and publicise developments, I thought I'd mention that the first meeting of collaborators takes place this Saturday (6th April) at the University of Stirling. This meeting hasn't been widely advertised, since it is largely for collaborators to meet, get to know each other, and plan for future workshops - nonetheless, if anyone reading would like to attend then please get in touch with me.