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Kidney Removal Prior to the Donor’s Death? One Surgeon Says “Yes”

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Across the country and around the world, there is a severe shortage of organs available for transplant. This lack of organs has led to countless deaths and immeasurable agony. Dr. Paul Morrissey of Brown University has proposed a controversial solution to the problem: harvesting organs before a donor is legally dead.

In an article for the American Journal of Bioethics, Dr. Morrissey notes that up to one-third of willing donors end up not being able to donate due to a lengthy waiting period before the patient’s heart stops beating. With modern life-support interventions, some patients with irreversible brain damage can be kept alive (in the sense that their hearts are still beating) and thus not candidates for organ donation. Dr. Morrissey suggests removing life support from these patients and immediately harvesting the organs, rather than waiting until full cardiac death and potentially jeopardizing the viability of the organs. All of this would take place only if proper consent is given.

Dr. Morrissey’s proposal has raised a number of ethical questions, most importantly whether it is appropriate to remove organs from a donor who is still alive but whose death is considered “imminent.” In particular, removal of both kidneys would ultimately result in the death of the donor if life support was not otherwise terminated. Dr. Morrissey attempts to quell these concerns by pointing out that the original injury and the removal of life support.

Another concern is the possibility that the harvesting procedure could actually hasten the so-called “imminent death” due to a surgical complication such as hemorrhage.