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 a deceased person’s organs being used to help others, except when the deceased has expressed a contrary wish.
In practice, we campaign for a move away 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 where a deceased person over the age of 16 is presumed to have consented to their organs being donated, unless they had specifically stated otherwise and their family members know of no prior objection. This system is currently in operation in Wales. In 2017, Scotland decided to move to the same system, and the UK Government launched a consultation on England doing the same.
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 have also met with the UK Government about a similar move in England.
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 currently operate ‘opt-in’ donor schemes where people have to register themselves. However, polling carried out by the British Medical Association (BMA) suggests that whilst 66% of people state that they are happy to donate their organs, only 39% sign up to the organ donor register. 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 BMA supports the ‘opt-in’ to be replaced with a ‘soft’ system of ‘presumed consent’, whereby organ donation 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 system being rolled out across the UK, accompanied by public information and education campaigns. In 2017, Scotland decided to move to the same system, and the UK Government launched a consultation on England doing the same.
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. In 2016, 39 out of a total of 160 organs transplanted in Wales came from cases where consent was presumed.
In June 2017, the Scottish Government announced that it would also introduce a ‘soft opt out’ system. Then in October, the UK Government announced proposals to make the same move in England. As well as responding to the subsequent consultation, in partnership with our patron and humanist philosopher Richard Norman (reflecting our unique expertise at the intersection of medical ethics and the law), we also met with the UK Government about the matter. In February 2018, the Government confirmed it will support a private members’ bill that seeks to bring about the change in law, and that Humanists UK has been working in support of.
While in the past the Northern Ireland Government has also indicated support for a similar change, a private member’s bill to introduce it was rejected in January 2016. The Government did consult on organ donation in early 2018, but still has not proposed a move to soft opt-out.
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.