We support medical advances for the improvement of human health and wellbeing. Humanists do not believe that respect for the dead constitutes any reason to object to allowing deceased humans’ organs to be used to help others, except when the deceased has expressed a contrary wish.
In practice we campaign for a move from an ‘opt-in’ system of consent to donating organs, as is the law in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland, to a ‘soft opt-out’ system of presumed consent, with safeguards, as is the law in Wales. We helped shape the system in Wales when it was introduced, giving oral evidence to the Welsh Assembly Government Committee Inquiry that led to the change.
We believe that better public education about organ donation and transplantation is essential, and that policy actions at both state and European levels are needed in order to increase the number of organ transplants and so save more lives. We are concerned that the low number of organs donated across Europe is contributing to unnecessary suffering, a large number of unnecessary deaths and to a market in organs and even trafficking in human beings for the purpose of removing organs.
England, Scotland and Northern Ireland operate ‘opt-in’ donor schemes where people have to register themselves. However, it is often the case that those who would be happy to donate their organs fail to register or have never discussed the matter with their friends and family, so medical staff and close relatives may not be aware of their consent to help others after their deaths. This contributes to the low number of organs available.
The British Medical Association has suggested a ‘soft’ system of ‘presumed consent’, whereby organ donation (for those over the age of 16) would be the default position, but individuals could opt-out while alive. Next of kin would be informed after death that the individual had not opted out and asked if they are aware of any unregistered objection: this would make their decision easier than at present. If not, organs could be transplanted. This is now the position in Wales, and we support this being rolled out across the UK, accompanied by public information and education campaigns. We support campaigns to encourage the public to discuss their wishes for the end of life, including organ donation, in advance.
What we’re doing
In 2008 Humanists UK made a submission to a House of Lords inquiry into organ donation, was consulted by the Organ Donation Taskforce, and gave oral evidence to the Welsh Assembly Government Committee Inquiry into Presumed Consent for Organ Donation, recommending that the UK adopt a presumed consent ‘opt-out’ organ donor scheme to replace the current ‘opt-in’ scheme. While the Organ Donation taskforce did not recommend the introduction of a system of presumed consent at the present time, it did recommend public investment into education about organ donation, which we welcomed.
However, the Welsh Assembly did decide to proceed on moving to a soft opt-out system, which it did in December 2015. The Northern Ireland Government has also indicated support for a similar change, although a private member’s bill to introduce it was rejected in January 2016.
Meanwhile, in Scotland, in February 2016, MSPs voted 59 to 56 against moving to a soft opt-out system, but Government ministers nonetheless committed to considering changing the law in this area. In June, the Scottish Government announced plans to change to an opt-out register.
In summer 2017, the Prime Minister announced that the UK Government supported presumed consent for England. With support previously declared by the Liberal Democrats, Labour, the Green Party, the SNP, Plaid Cymru, and the DUP, the proposals are expected to have near-unanimous support in the House of Commons.
In 2010, Humanists UK wrote a leaflet about humanist perspectives on organ donation for the NHS England Blood and Transplant section to add to their existing series of leaflets explaining organ donation from a variety of viewpoints and principles. These leaflets encourage people to think about organ donation and consider some of the issues and benefits involved.
Humanists UK consults with its members on organ donation and many other scientific and ethical issues. We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our campaigns.
You can join the Organ Donor Register and help save lives after your death at https://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/.
You can also email your MP to ask them to support calls for a ‘soft’ presumed consent policy.
You can support Humanists UK by becoming a member. That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns in the ways suggested above. But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support. You can make a donation to Humanists UK.