Center for Bioethics

Organ Donation by Death Row Inmates

Experts have argued that death row inmates should have the right to donate their organs. Others say it’s unethical. Based on the number of citations in literature from both sides of the debate, the most influential articles in this debate were written by Caplan (against allowing death row inmates to donate their organs after execution and Longo (advocates for allowing death row inmates to donate their organs). Many papers cite Caplan or Longo to support a position or as a counterargument to be addressed, and the debate seems to be stuck with variations of the competing views of Caplan or Longo.

Arguments Against

Arguments Against

Those against allowing death row inmates to donate their organs focus on protecting vulnerable populations and on pragmatism, as the process of procuring organs with the current methods hurts the chances of a successful procurement or it requires health care providers to be too involved in the execution itself.
Arguments Supporting

Arguments Supporting

Those who support allowing death row inmates to donate their organs focus on utilitarianism; up to eight lives could be saved with the organs from an executed individual.

Opinions on Organ Donations by Death Row Inmates

Public opinion, based on polling not scientifically performed, is either supportive or indifferent about allowing death row inmates to donate their organs after execution.

Legislatures and courts have been unwilling to allow death row inmates to donate their organs due to fear of abuse by the medical community or to preserve the principles of capital punishment.

Physician groups, including the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, are almost uniformly against organ procurement after execution, mostly to avoid being complicit in executions. The literature seems divided among those who support and are against allowing death row inmates to donate their organs. With the legislatures and courts unwilling to make a move, the only tangible outcome of this debate is some states, including Oregon, placing a moratorium on all executions while methods are reviewed.

The opinion of the American Medical Association as described in the AMA Code of Ethics is that organ donation by condemned prisoners is permissible only if:

  • The decision to donate was made before the prisoner’s conviction.
  • The donated tissue is harvested after the prisoner has been pronounced dead and the body removed from the death chamber.
  • Physicians do not provide advice on modifying the method of execution for any individual to facilitate donation.