Center for Bioethics

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In Support of Organ Procurement from Executed Prisoners

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Lin’s Argument: Prisoners on Death Row Should Be Accepted as Organ Donors

Lin is a transplant surgeon who advocates for allowing death row inmates to donate their organs after execution. Lin claims that it is possible that procuring organs could still be successful after an execution despite concerns of the extended period of hypoxemia.

Since multiple death row inmates have made appeals to allow their organs to be donated after execution, there is an interest by a sizable percentage of death row inmates to donate their organs freely. Because of this, these prisoners would not have any feeling of coercion or lack of informed consent when donating their organs. In response to the criticism that allowing executed prisoners to donate their organs would undermine the justifications for capital punishment, Lin responds that this is not something to be worried about when people’s lives could be saved with these organs.

Ultimately, Lin concludes that society needs to decide if it prefers to protect justifications of capital punishment or protect the lives of people who need organs. Lin also cites online polls such as the poll conducted by the Indiana University Center for Bioethics at IU School of Medicine on the Gregory Scott Johnson case as evidence of public support for allowing death row inmates to donate their organs after execution.

Citation: Lin, S. S., Rich, L., Pal, J. D., & Sade, R. M. (2012) Prisoners on Death Row Should Be Accepted as Organ Donors. The Annals of Thoracic Surgery, 93(6), 1773.

Donation to Relative or Friend

In commentary on above article: Miller RB. Ethics of paid organ donation and the use of executed prisoners as donors: A dialectic with Professors Cameron and Hoffenberg. Kidney International 1999; 55: 733-737, Miller states that it could be argued to be ethically permissible for death row prisoners to donate an organ upon execution to a relative or friend, not an altruistic/unrelated donation. He states his position as, “I would allow the transplantation of deceased prisoners’ organs if, and only if, the society had a universal presumed-consent policy for all members of the society.”

History of Organ Donation in the United States

In Patton LM. (1996) A Call for Common Sense: Organ Donation and the Executed Prisoner. 3 Va. J. Soc. Pol’y & L. 387, the author, Laura-Hill M. Patton, explores the viability and potential that the death penalty carries in conjunction with an organ procurement plan. She begins her argument with historical context, drawing attention to the history of organ donation and transplantation in the United States, traditional uses of cadavers in medical research, and the history of physician participation in executions. She uses this history to examine the current methods of execution, concluding that an alternative execution is needed in order for the death penalty to work alongside an organ procurement plan. Patton attempts to resolve the philosophical, ethical and practical problems that would be associated with physician’s involvement in an organ procurement execution. In addition, she provides policy considerations as well as a discussion of similar proposals.

Organ Donation as Part of Prisoner Sentencing

In Palmer LJ. (1998) Capital Punishment. A Utilitarian Proposal for Recycling Transplantable Organs As Part of a Capital Felon’s Death Sentence. 29 U. West. L.A. L. Rev. 1, Palmer argues that executed prisoners should be considered for donors after death through a discussion including the history of rights in a corpse, China’s current practice, alternatives to the current D-BOSS system, and methods of execution. He concludes his argument by proposing that organ transplantation should be used as part of the convicted felon’s sentence. He then justifies his proposal with the three fundamental principles of punishment currently in place: deterrence, retribution and restitution.

In Palmer LJ. Organ Transplants from Executed Prisoners. North Carolina, US and London, McFarland and Company, 1999, NEED SUMMARY.

Data on Prisoners’ Willingness to Donate

In Callender CO, Kelly BS, Rivadeneira DA. (1996) Medical utility versus legal justice: A proposal for the use of prisoner-donated organs. Transplant Proc 28:37, the authors in support of organ donation by executed prisoners note that there have been no surveys to determine prisoner’s willingness to donate organs. After brief reflection of the issue the authors conclude with five main points:

  • Prisoners should be allowed to make living donations if they are willing and healthy.
  • Regardless of the cause of death, dead prisoners should be able to donate.
  • Approaches and protocols can safeguard the rights of everyone involved.
  • The protocol in place (for non-heart-beating donors) is reasonable and applicable to prisoners.
  • A panel to decide the authenticity of the donation requests is recommended.