Group debates organ policy

Laura Meckler and Laura Meckler

HERNDON, Va. – Organ transplant programs should harvest the organs of those who sign donor cards in life, even if their families object, several members of a new advisory committee said yesterday.

The committee, meeting for the first time, is charged with advising the secretary of health and human services on ways to increase organ donation and how best to distribute organs that are donated now.

Yesterday, the focus was increasing donation, and members considered a variety of ideas, including the controversial ideas of financial incentives for donation and “presumed consent,” where transplant coordinators proceed with organ donation unless a family specifically objects.

“If we’re serious about solving the problem in this country we’re going to have to think of something different than we’ve been doing,” said Dr. Phil H. Berry Jr., a liver transplant recipient and president of the Southwest Transplant Alliance in Dallas.

Most of the effort in recent years to boost donation rates has revolved around public education, and that hasn’t worked, Berry said. “I’ve been talking for 15 years and I have not seen anything but it gets worse.”

Several states allow transplant programs to take organs from people who have consented during life without permission from the family, but family wishes are almost always followed anyway, said Gail Agrawal, a law professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

“The reality is nobody wants to add to the grief of the family,” she said.

Donation should simply be expected, said Roger W. Evans, a private investigator in Rochester, Minn.

“When a family refuses to donate, that’s functionally equivalent to a homicide,” he said. Others on the committee suggested that sentiment was too strong but agreed that expectations should change.

More than 80,000 people are on organ transplant waiting lists, and more than 5,700 died waiting last year.