Human organ harvest

By Jon Holmlund

The ethical practice of human organ transplantation entails consent from a donor to donate an organ while still living (e.g., one of the donor’s two kidneys), or after dying (e.g., the heart).  In the latter case, it is still generally accepted that the donor must be dead first, and that the harvesting of the vital organ to be transplanted not be the cause of the donor’s death.  This is referred to as the “dead donor rule,” the interpretation of which is open to some controversy (about which more in a future post).  But it is still generally followed.

Periodically, one reads of suggestions or practice that violates this.  In 2006, the bioethics observer Wesley Smith posted comments about proposals in the medical ethics literature to the effect that some had said that patients permanently comatose but not dead, in what is known as a “permanent vegetative state” (PVS), could ethically not only have their organs harvested for transplant, but be human subjects for experimentation involving the transplant of animal organs into them, to try to learn how to improve that practice, called “xenotransplantation.”  Presumably, these “donors” would have previously “consented” to have their organs harvested—essentially, to be killed—if they became persistently comatose.  The validity of such “consent” is of course questionable, and the prospect of the practice should be seen as abominable.  An argument in favor seems to rely on the notion that it’s too risky to transplant animal organs into humans who have full brain function and seem to be more clearly alive than PVS patients (suggesting they be seen as dead), or that there is some envisioned state where a PVS patient could potentially benefit from the animal organ and give consent in advance.  The former is disturbing, and the latter implausible.  A link to one proposal that appears to be in favor is here, and to arguments raising concerns, here and here.

(More to follow in a future post on comments about xenotransplantation from the recent Hastings Center conference on the 50th anniversary of the development of brain death criteria.)

More recently (again with the blogger’s “HT” to Smith), not only is organ harvesting after euthanasia apparently performed, on occasion, in countries that permit euthanasia, but a transplantation medical journal has carried an article arguing for “organ donation euthanasia,” wherein someone who had previously requested euthanasia could also “request” organ donation while still alive—essentially, authorizing the removal of the heart as the means of active euthanasia.  Now, what is first in view is harvesting a kidney, which would not cause death, but if someone is in a state where euthanasia is perceived as a preferred option, why would someone want to undergo invasive surgery first? 

If euthanasia is accepted, then this troubling stance on organ donation will be difficult to resist.

At least the above pay lip service to “advance, informed consent.”  This week, an article in the Wall Street Journal calls attention to the covert but well-attested practice in China to accommodate demand for organ transplantation without the encumbrance of a waiting list, by harvesting organs from prisoners of conscience, such as political dissidents, who are given a mortal but not immediately fatal wound, then have their organs removed before they are dead—satisfying the “need” for a donated organ while finishing the prisoner off.  Because of this practice, several countries have prohibited their citizens to travel to China for “transplant tourism,” just going there to get their transplant.  What the Chinese seem clearly to be doing should not be supported, by anyone.

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