Controversial Organ Donation Program Kicks off in New York

By Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
Staff Journalist

A bizarre new program kicked off in the city of Manhattan this week that will monitor 9-1-1 calls pertaining to people who are in danger of dying of cardiac arrest for the purpose of dispatching an Organ Donation Unit to the home – without being summoned – when the person is pronounced dead in order to harvest organs. is reporting that the program, designed to help increase the number of available organs for transplant, is on a five-month trial and is a collaboration between Bellevue Hospital and New York City police and fire departments.

The program will involve sending an “Organ Donation Unit” to the home of any person age 18-59 who dies suddenly of cardiac arrest in their Manhattan home. The Unit consists of two emergency medical technicians, an organ donor family services specialist and a Bellevue emergency physician who will be dispatched to the scene in time to harvest organs. Once there, the team will have about 20 minutes to check the donor registry, determine medical eligibility, obtain a family member’s consent and get the deceased into a specialized ambulance known as an “Organ Preservation Ambulance.”

Just to be sure, a police detective will be sent to the home ahead of the team to be sure there’s nothing suspicious about the death. They will also protect citizens against over-zealous organ harvesters by not allowing EMT’s who try to revive the patient to know if the person is a donor or not. Organ donation team members will also be forbidden to enter the home of the person until after they have been declared dead.

For the time being, only kidneys will be harvested in the trial program.

“Donating an organ can save a person’s life – that’s why I am an organ donor,” said Mayor Bloomberg. “But the unfortunate truth is that 8,000 New Yorkers are currently on the wait list for a donation, and there are barriers that make saving their lives not as simple as it could be. This new pilot program will help us test a process that could transform the way we donate organs and help save many lives.”

While there is no problem with looking for ways to encourage more organ donation from the public, sending an organ retrieval team to the home of someone who just died strikes many as being problematic on a number of fronts.

One of the most vocal critics is anti-euthanasia activist and attorney Wesley J. Smith who asks: “Can you imagine, you’re grieving the news from the ER team that your young husband–who 20 minutes ago keeled while over eating breakfast cereal–is dead.  And then a knock on the door and uninvited strangers come in telling you they want his body to harvest the organs? Good grief! Moreover, one may suspect a cardiac arrest, but only an autopsy can tell for sure.”

The promoters of the macabre new idea claim that similar programs are already in place in France and Spain where all people are considered to be organ donors unless they opt out.

Smith says the real goal of the program may be to move toward this kind of presumed consent.

“I am a big supporter of organ donation and am one on my driver’s license.  But the key word is donation.  I reject the notion that society owns our bodies.  Organ donation should not become organ conscription.”

The Catholic Church approves of organ donation under certain conditions. As stated in the U.S. Bishops Ethical and Religious Directives For Catholic Health Care, “The transplantation of organs from living donors is morally permissible when the anticipated benefit to the recipient is proportionate to the harm done to the donor, provided that the loss of such organ(s) does not deprive the donor of life itself nor of the functional integrity of his body.” Also required are the informed consent of the deceased or next of kin, and a legitimate declaration of death.

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1. Why does the Church consider organ donation to be an example of self-giving love? (See The Gospel of Life, No. 86 )

2.  What are the Church’s requirements for ethical organ donation? (See Catechism No. 2296)

3. When is it permissible to remove an organ from a deceased person? (See. No. 31 in the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Facilities)

4.  There are many controversial issues surrounding organ donation that reflect the battle between the cultures of life and death. Read Should We Be Dying to Donate? by pro-life Catholic nurse Nancy Valko to better understand the problems surrounding organ donation.

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