Should prisoners donate organs?

Utah has become the first state to allow prisoners, even prisoners on death row, to donate organs. According to NBCNews, “In most states, accepting organs from inmates who die while in custody is permitted only rarely and under strictly controlled circumstances. No state allows donation of organs from executed prisoners.”

The man behind the Utah legislation is Utah state Rep. Steve Eliason. He says that he was inspired by a prisoner executed in 2010 whose request to donate organs was denied. “How disappointing is that, there’s somebody who maybe wants to atone for his sins in some way,” Mr Eliason. “It’s a waste of perfectly good organs that could help others.”

The New York Times gathered six people to debate the issue. Here are a few excerpts:

Transplant surgeon Amy L. Friedman agrees that prisoners should be able to donate, but not death row prisoners. “We are specifically committed to saving lives through transplantation and are loathe to associate with the active termination of healthy individuals.”

Sally Satel, of the American Enterprise Institute, supports the idea. “It’s hardly the solution to the national organ shortage, but donation could be part of the rehabilitation of the select few who want to bequeath their organs to the desperately needy.

Ruth Faden, director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics, also believes that prisoner organ donation could save lives but she says that death row donation is going too far. “This new law appears to leave open the possibility that death-row inmates who wish to be posthumous donors could request to be executed by removal of their vital organs. Such a practice is hugely controversial.”

Lawrence O. Gostin, of Georgetown University, opposes all prisoner organ donation: “Free consent is not truly possible under coercive conditions. Beyond the inherently coercive environment, many prisoners are mentally ill, poor and uneducated – and some are very young – rendering them incapable of giving informed consent. While in prison, they face despair and loneliness— exacerbating their emotional distress. As a confined population, prisoners could be ‘educated,’ even persuaded or enticed, by wardens and the state to donate their organs.” 

This article is published by Michael Cook and BioEdge.org under a Creative Commons licence. You may republish it or translate it free of charge with attribution for non-commercial purposes following these guidelines. If you teach at a university we ask that your department make a donation. Commercial media must contact us for permission and fees. Some articles on this site are published under different terms.

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