Friday, September 23, 2005

Dead rights

A plan in Ontario to remove organs from dead bodies on the basis of presumed consent has been shelved. This "negative option" approach would have allowed the use of such organs to save lives in cases where the deceased had not explicitly registered an objection beforehand. Dr. Frank Markel, who heads the Trillium Gift of Life Network, which administers organ donations, says, "we don't believe the public of Ontario is ready." In a bizarre editorial, the Globe & Mail today supported this move, using emotive language to push things along: organs are not taken for use, but "harvested": governments are not permitting the use of organs to save lives, they are "organ snatchers." But here is the crux: "interfering with a person's body, even after death [emphasis mine], is a serious violation of his rights."

This takes "rights talk" to a whole new plateau. Even the dead now have rights. It boggles the mind, or at least my mind. I tried to imagine what a Bill of Rights for the dead would look like. The right to life? Well, why not--corpses should get a shot at it, but this is a right unlikely to be exercised. Security of the person? Only if the dead are now granted personhood, perhaps a new advocacy project for the exhausted "pro-life" movement. Liberty? Maybe on Hallowe'en. Freedom of assembly? Ditto.

But seriously, folks, let's get a grip here. I don't have an objection if a person or his or her family doesn't want to donate organs to those whose lives may depend upon it. Well, I do, actually, but I don't think we can legislate against selfishness or metaphysics. I cannot, however, for the life of me (as it were) see what is wrong with asking such individuals to register their objections in advance, as is currently done in Quebec when people renew their health cards. In any case, presumed consent, from an ethical point of view, is entirely reasonable when another person's life may be dependent upon it.

A few decades hence, people will shake their heads in wonder at this controversy. A lung, or a cornea, or a heart, is of no use to a corpse. Even the Globe admits that Canada's organ donation rate is a "national disgrace." So what, then, is the problem? Thousands of dying people on waiting lists would like to know.

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