Organ transplant, as a result of organ donation, saves ‘thousands of lives’ every year in the UK and ‘greatly enhances’ the lives of those who receive them. At the beginning of 2021, there were 5,073 people waiting to receive a transplant in the UK, and 2,258 people who had received a transplant since April 2020, according to the organ donation website – you can find the most recent statistics here. From these statistics it’s clear that organ donation is essential for saving and improving the lives of people requiring organ transplants.
Across the UK, the law around organ donation differs; to be able to confidently and correctly discuss organ donation within the UK it’s important that you’re aware of the law in each of the devolved nations. The following is a brief overview of the law around organ donation in the UK.
As outlined above, England, Wales and Scotland all adopt a ‘deemed consent’ or ‘opt out’ system for organ donation. With Northern Ireland now consulting on the introduction of an ‘opt out’ system, all of the UK could potentially be using this approach within the near future.
The following are wider issues relating to organ donation and the ethical implications of an opt out system:
As mentioned above, the organ donation website provides statistics on the number of people waiting for an organ transplant, along with the knowledge that ‘every day across the UK, someone dies waiting for a transplant because of a shortage of organ donors’. Combined with the fact that ‘80% of people in England support organ donation but only 38% [...] opted in’ under the opt in system, it’s clear that the demand for organ transplants and the support for organ donation did not match the number of people registered to donate under the previous opt in system in England. Therefore, does an opt out system combat this problem, allowing those who wish to donate their organs and tissue to do so without the need to register?
In contrast, an opt out system raises the ethical issue of an individual’s right to autonomy and the question of whether an opt out system, which offers an individual the option to register that they do not wish to donate their organs and tissue, is sufficient for gaining consent to donate. To develop your understanding and support you in your interview, you may wish to research this further, to explore the ethical implications of a ‘deemed consent’ system for organ donation. The following responses from key medical organisations may be a useful starting point for your research:
Although failing to ‘opt out’ is deemed consent under English, Welsh and Scottish law, ‘family’s support is needed for organ donation to go ahead’; this is positive for protecting individual consent, as it means that families can follow their wishes and give or refuse consent regardless of whether they opted out or not. However, this can be problematic when a family is unsure of what their wishes were, and therefore requires individuals to discuss the subject of organ donation with their family.
The organ donation website states that 'fewer than half of families agree to donation going ahead if they are unaware of their loved one’s decision to be a donor [...] this rises to over nine out of 10 when the decision to be an organ donor is known’.
Consider how, if possible, individuals and families could be supported and encouraged to discuss organ donation, with the aim of improving the number of families who subsequently consent to organ donation for their loved ones.
As previously mentioned, ensure that you are familiar with organ donation laws across the UK, including being up-to-date on the Northern Ireland consultation. To support you, refer to the websites listed for each of the devolved nations, as well as the organ donation website.
There has been much debate regarding ‘opt out’ organ donation, which you may find useful to explore further, to understand the arguments for and against its introduction in England, Wales and Scotland, and potential introduction in Northern Ireland. You may wish to consider how this has been covered in the mainstream media and in medical articles, as well as the response from medical organisations.
In relation to this, you may find it useful to explore the impact of the opt out system in Wales, given that this has been law since 2015, and, therefore, there are statistics available to evaluate this. As a starting point, the organ donation website published an article in December 2020, outlining the Welsh Health Minister’s view on the impact of the opt out system in Wales after five years.
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