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Should Death Row Inmates Be Allowed to Donate Their Organs?


You’re probably familiar with the long-running debate about the death penalty- including arguments over its morality, effectiveness, cost, and fairness. The argument over whether or not the death penalty should exist is well-trod ground.

However, there are many ancillary debates relating to the death penalty, which do not directly relate to whether or not we should have capital punishment. Most of these debates start from the premise that the death penalty should exist, or that, for better or worse, it won’t be going away anytime soon.

These include questions from the exact method should be used to execute convicts, what crimes should be eligible for the death penalty, who should be subject to the death penalty (the debate focuses primarily on minors and the mentally disabled).

However, there’s another debate that has long been simmering below the surface, and has recently grown in prominence: the question over whether or not inmates on death row should be able to donate their organs after they are executed. In March of 2011, an inmate on Oregon’s death row wrote an opinion piece in the NewYorkTimes, in which he explained his desire to donate his organs after he is executed. He has even offered to drop all of his appeals, if he is allowed to donate his organs.

On its surface, it seems perfectly logical that the organs of death row inmates should be harvested and donated to those who need them, presuming that the organs are suitable for donation. In fact, some might argue that organ harvesting should be standard procedure, with the inmate having no say in the matter. After all, if the state has already stripped a person of his legal right to live, taking away their legal right to determine what’s done with their organs after they die seems like a triviality.

Most people who favor letting inmates donate organs, however, seem to believe that the choice should be up to the inmate.

In either case, the argument is simple: whether you favor the death penalty or not, it probably isn’t going away anytime soon. So in the meantime, why not let the death of a person (which is never a pleasant thing, even if they were convicted of a horrible crime) save or improve the lives of several other people?

After all, there are over 100,000 people in the United States awaiting donor organs, and almost 20 of them die every day. Across the U.S., about 3,000 people are on federal (both civilian and military) and state death row. A single healthy person, by donating their heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, and other vital organs, can save the lives of up to 8 people. And by donating their corneas, skin, and even (thanks to advances in medical technology over the last decade or so) their faces and entire limbs, they can vastly improve the quality of life of many additional people. And currently, no jurisdiction in the United States allows prisoners condemned to death to donate their organs. They are buried or cremated right along with the rest of an executed prisoner’s body. To many, this seems like a huge waste.

However, there are some reasons why we should think long and hard before changing the rules to allow these organ donations. First of all, there’s the issue of consent. When a person is on death row, it’s arguable that they are totally incapable of making a truly free and rational choice about anything, let alone something as profound as organ donation.

Furthermore, there are laws in the United States that make it illegal to sell human organs, or exchange them for any other type of “valuable consideration,” which would presumably include leniency in sentencing. However, if the inmate is going to be executed either way, that doesn’t seem to be an issue.

There are also concerns that the need for donor organs, and the ability of inmates to donate them after they’re executed, might lead to prison officials and court systems trying to hasten the execution process. For example, suppose an inmate has agreed to donate his organs in the event that he’s executed, but still maintains his innocence, or at least believes that he has legal grounds to have his sentence reduced to life in prison without parole. One could imagine a scenario where the courts try to rush his appeals through the system, in order to have him executed as quickly as possible, so that other people can benefit from his organs.

And finally, there’s the issue of medical ethics: a team of doctors would have to be on hand at the site of the execution to harvest the prisoner’s organs. The vast majority of doctors, however, believe that the Hippocratic Oath requiring that they “do no harm” prohibits them from using their medical expertise to participate in executions, in any way. It may be hard to find a doctor who’s willing to harvest the organs from a just-executed inmate, because they might believe that they are, in effect, participating in the execution process. But I think it should be up to individual doctors to make the decision of whether or not to participate in the process.

All in all, I think that some type of system which would allow inmates to make the choice to donate their organs is a good idea, on balance. Like every decision related to both the death penalty, and organ donation, that we have to make as a society, this is not a perfect solution. It certainly wouldn’t make the controversy over the death penalty go away, and would probably heighten the debate. Furthermore, it seems that this country is on a (very slow) path toward eventual abolition of the death penalty – with a few states recently eliminating it, and the Supreme Court regularly placing new restrictions on when it can be used. I don’t think making this one change should change our course in that direction.

In my view, allowing condemned criminals to donate their organs would be a good policy which might save hundreds of lives. However, I think it’s a decision that should be completely independent from the debate over the death penalty’s existence.


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