Penny for your thoughts

Katherine Thomas

Well, perhaps that headline was misleading. What I really meant was penny for your brain. Or maybe you could just give it to me for free? Maybe I’ll just take it when you don’t need it anymore? But then what’s stopping me from taking it before then? What if someone, sorry, better than you needs it? With the SNP considering an opt-out system of organ donation and the Welsh assembly currently reviewing a bill on it, your organs may be up for grabs.

The facts are that in the UK there are 7,450 people on the waiting list for organ transplants with around 3000 helped last year due to about 2000 donors. But recent campaigns to increase donations have faltered. Since the Organ Donation Taskforce was set to increase donations 5 years ago, statistics remain steady as four out of ten families reject requests for their relative’s organs.

If 96% of people agree that organ donation is morally commendable action, but with only 30% actually signed up, maybe an opt-out system would save that other 66% the admin. However in a system where your consent is presumed it seems as if your body is just ‘on loan’ and when you’re done using it the state can reclaim it for its own purposes. What’s to stop them from taking your lovely healthy heart valves a little earlier than expected!

The idea isn’t intended as further state intervention but to prevent 3 people a day dying waiting for an organ: Particularly as the vast majority of people would take an organ if they needed it. But this change would be a colossal change in NHS philosophy. The NHS was effectively founded on the principle that there would be free-riders. There will be some who over-contribute and barely use the service, which will allow people who cannot contribute to still enjoy state-of-the-art healthcare.

Organ donation provokes a lot of strong emotions. It calls to mind the worst, or last, day of an individual’s life. With so much riding on your choice it is something that is worth looking at from a different perspective. Controversial change to the current system is one way to force people’s hands. But another may be just thinking about the issue in a different way.

What else of your body have you given away? Not abstract things like time, or trust or love but actual bits. Have you given blood? Have you signed up to the Anthony Nolan Bone Marrow Trust during one of the campus drives? Maybe a pregnant friend or relative gave away their umbilical cord to harvest stem cells for research into regenerative therapy. If they didn’t, they may have donated spare breast milk to help premature babies. Would you give sperm, or a healthy egg, to a sibling or friend that was struggling to conceive? Perhaps you’ve had an operation where your tissues have been used for research. (Four years ago my tonsils were sent to the Anonymous Tonsil Archive; well I figured I didn’t have anywhere to put them.) Oh, and all those dentistry students, medical students and anatomy students would you donate your body to science?

There are hundreds of ways in which we give away parts of our bodies, and receive parts from others. 96% of people would take an organ if they needed one but only 30% are signed up to the register. So put aside you’re totally natural instinctive ‘yuk’ moment at bits of your corneas and lungs and tendons flying around the country and really think about what you already have given away. Think about what you would take. Then tell your friends and family, whatever your decision. So that no one misses out on the chance to a better longer life. Or the more amazing chance of facilitating it.