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Lend me your ears

| Monday, November 16, 2015

More than 121,000 people are currently waiting for organ transplants in the United States. Today, 22 of them will die. The deaths of these people are particularly tragic because they are largely caused by one factor — low donor turnout. Although 95 percent of Americans support organ donation, only 40 percent of eligible donors have registered. As of 2013, there were but 14,250 donors in the entire country.

To be fair, the various agencies in charge of managing donation have gone a long way towards dispelling some of the myths that have previously discouraged donations. No, there is no possibility of your organs being extracted while you are still alive on the operating table. No, your dependents won’t be charged for the costs of donation. And if you’re a Roman Catholic, Muslim or a member of most Protestant or Jewish branches, no, organ donation is not against your religion.

A single organ donor can save the lives of eight people. Corneal and tissue donation can improve the lives of many others. In fact, if you aren’t already an organ donor, I strongly recommend you to go out and become one at your first opportunity. But even that is still not enough to balance the books, and this failure has life-or-death consequences. Firmer measures are necessary than mere encouragement.

A law ought to be passed requiring all Americans to become organ donors upon their death. The sole permitted exceptions would be for religious reasons, in keeping with the First Amendment; as previously discussed, the impact on the total organ supply due to these objections would be minimal. Such a law would go far towards clearing out the backlog of patients awaiting donations. It would also eliminate the dangerous practice of “organ tourism,” by which desperate patients seek transplants outside the United States. These procedures are often unsafe, resulting in a high rate of rejection and infection.

Moreover, the impact on the citizen will be almost nonexistent. A dead man certainly does not need his organs, and the extraction procedure is so non-invasive as to allow for open casket funeral services. The adoption of such a law stands to secure a great good at minimal cost; every day that passes without such legislation condemns another 22 people to death.

That being said, I know there are some who will object to government-mandated organ donation. While the Constitutional basis for the law through Congress’s authority to “promote the general welfare” is strong, there are sure to be plenty of objections on grounds of personal autonomy. After all, if we eliminate a citizen’s control over his or her own body parts, haven’t we sort of given up on the fundamentals of private property? Even after I’m dead, shouldn’t I be allowed to determine what happens to my body?

I understand such concerns even if I do not entirely agree with them; therefore, I suggest a compromise. A so-called “opt-out” system would begin with all persons registered to donate organs, and they would check a box to remove their donor status. When tried elsewhere, this strategy has markedly increased donation rates; Germany’s opt-in system yields 12% donation, while Austria’s opt-out system results in 99% donation. After all, there’s only one thing most people object to more strongly than gratuitous and sustained violations of their civil liberties, and that is being moderately inconvenienced in any way. If you think this isn’t true, think about the last time you answered “yes” to the prompt “I have read and agreed to the Terms and Conditions.”

We must take action to prevent the needless deaths of those awaiting organ transplants. Voluntary increases in donation are a good first step, but the ultimate solution to this problem will be mandatory donation. Lives are at stake.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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