Posted: Jan 30, 2014 10:00 AM
The organ donation question used to seem like a no-brainer. But now that I have more information, I'm very hesitant to sign up as a donor. Here's why.

I recently wrote about a little boy who was denied a heart transplant because he has a disability. I was outraged and saddened that doctors can pick and choose who is most worthy of an organ based on very little information. I was also shocked to learn that transplants are not given out first-come, first-serve. There is a tremendous shortage of donors, so healthy organs are a precious resource. The medical community guards that resource and chooses recipients very carefully for that reason. The whole situation saddens me.
After (narrowly — gosh I feel old) passing the vision test at the DMV yesterday, the woman behind the counter asked me, "Would you like to be an organ or tissue donor?"

No easy answer

blood donationIt's what I've learned over the past few months that causes me to hesitate. Becky Miller, an editor of Wyn Magazine, has worked for state and national pro-life organizations, and has shared with me a new perspective on organ donation.

"I would have no problem donating blood (I've done it), plasma, bone marrow or a kidney," Miller says. "But I'm not listed as an organ donor. Donating a lung, a heart, an eye... that's much more problematic. Because those organs need to be collected while the donor is still essentially alive, or just moments after death, the line is fuzzy between waiting for death versus causing death to get the organs."

Since the 1960s, brain death has been all that's required to harvest organs. That's because unpaired organs, such as the heart and liver, are difficult to preserve if the body is not living. Medicine's answer to this was to redefine "death" as being a lack of brain activity.

Is brain death really death?

"Is it right to decide a person in a persistent vegetative state has less 'quality of life' — or a person with mental retardation — than a person with a physical disability? I don't think it's right at all. All humans have equal value just because they're human. The value judgments in the current organ donation system go against that fundamental understanding that all men are created equal and endowed with inalienable rights."

The fact is, we don't really have a good definition of consciousness, or even death. Can a person in a coma hear or think? We don't know. People have miraculously recovered from brain death (this teen, and this man are just two recent examples), so how is it that brain death is the moment we begin cutting out organs for someone else who "needs them more?" There's something very strange about calling a breathing person "dead." Ask the parents of Jahi McMath.

Who is more valuable?

We aren't valuable because of what we do or don't contribute — we're valuable because we exist.

"It all boils down to making value judgments on human life based on a person's utility to the world. We aren't valuable because of what we do or don't contribute — we're valuable because we exist," Miller adds. "I won't sign up to be an organ donor until medical ethics and medical science advance far enough that we value human life intrinsically."

The lady across the counter is waiting for my answer to this question that used to seem so simple. In the past, I'd replied with an enthusiastic "Yes!" I told my friends that medicine could have all of me when I'm gone… I contemplated ways to officially dedicate my remains to science.

We've blurred the lines

But on this day, without the slightest pang of guilt, I answered, "No." Even with my new knowledge of how the system works. Even though I know my organs are desperately needed… no. It's not that I wouldn't be happy to save another life after mine expires. It's not that I don't believe in medicine or science. It's not that I don't believe every donation makes a difference.

If I have even the most minuscule chance of recovery, if it's remotely possible that I might be thinking or feeling things, I don't want my organs taken.

It's that we've blurred the lines too much.

But one thing that is crystal clear to me is that if I have even the most minuscule chance of recovery, if it's remotely possible that I might be thinking or feeling things, I don't want my organs taken.

Regardless of your political affiliation, or whether or not you're "pro-life," consider what it might be like if you were even slightly conscious as your organs were being harvested. It's possible.

I hope someday soon there is an overhaul of the organ donation system. Until then, I am not willing to risk it.

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