April has been designated as National Donate Life Month and we at Life Legal want to take this opportunity to let you know about concerns we have with organ donor registries, namely premature organ harvesting of live patients who are unable to advocate for themselves.
It all starts with brain death.
The concept of “brain death” was created in the 1968 based on the assumption that physicians are able to determine with absolute certainty that a patient has no chance of recovering from profound brain injuries. Conveniently, this timeline was in close proximity to the first successful human heart transplant, indicating that the purpose for creating the “brain death” designation was to provide a mechanism for quick organ harvesting and transplantation.
But is it really possible for doctors to determine the boundaries which divide life from death?
Doctors pronounced twenty-one year-old Zack Dunlap brain dead in 2008 after the young man flipped his all-terrain vehicle and landed on pavement. His parents were told their son had no brain activity and would never recover. Zack’s driver’s license revealed he was an organ donor and just three days after his accident, he was prepped for organ harvesting. On the way to the operating room, a nurse—who happened to be Zack’s cousin—decided to try something. He scraped his pocketknife against Zack’s foot and to his shock, Zack moved his foot away.
Turns out, Zack still needed his organs and has since made a significant recovery.
Cases like Zack’s —and many others whose brain death declarations proved incorrect or indecisive—should give us pause. Should we really rush into organ harvesting when there is a question about whether the donor could still be alive? I always thought the obvious answer would be a resounding NO!
In light of these cases, not to mention recent discoveries about the human brain’s amazing capacity for self-regeneration, we should revisit the now sixty-year-old brain death framework to make sure we aren’t killing patients who are still very much alive.
But that is not what is happening.
Instead, an alarming number of prominent bioethicists are suggesting that we do away with the dead donor rule entirely and start intentionally harvesting organs from still-alive donors. These bioethicists are arguing that it is okay for organ donation itself to be the cause of death, regardless of whether the patient is declared brain dead.
The language they use is similar to what we’ve heard from supporters of physician-assisted suicide: that people should be able to choose how and when they die.
But this completely ignores the abuses that come with a culture that prioritizes individual desires over the sanctity of human life.
Life Legal has been on the frontlines of cases where registered organ donors are not given time to recover from their injuries before being declared brain dead. In other cases involving incapacitated patients, nutrition is removed to precipitate a cardiac event that results in the patient being declared “dead” in order to harvest organs. This is called Controlled Cardiac/Circulatory Death or CCCD.
We have intervened to restore nutrition in numerous attempted CCCD cases – and we have seen patients (see picture of TL above) with allegedly “irreversible” anoxic brain injuries recover after receiving proper treatment.
Life Legal advocates for families to ensure that their life-affirming values are adhered to during the medical decision-making process.
While we do not take a position on organ donation as such, we strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with the organ harvesting process prior to deciding whether to register as an organ donor. Your decision about organ donation should be reflected in your advance health care directive. We have more information about advance directives here.