Losing a loved one is hard. But grief doesn't grant you the right to play God over the life and death of others. Thank goodness, then, that the NHS has finally decided to stop asking families for formal permission to take organs from the bodies of registered donors.
There are currently 6,578 patients on the UK national transplant waiting list desperately in need of potentially life-saving organ donations. During the last financial year, over 1,300 people on this list either died or became too sick to receive a transplant. There's a desperate shortage of donors because even though more than half a million people pass away every year in the UK, fewer than 5,000 die in circumstances that allow their organs to be used.
In these situations, what justification is there for allowing relatives to block the donation of organs even when that's against the deceased's explicitly stated wishes? Obviously, it's preferable to be sensitive to the feelings of people who are mourning. But avoiding upset can't justify inflicting the pain of grief on yet another family.
1,200 potentially unnecessary deaths
Since 2010, next of kin have stopped the organs of 547 registered donors being used for transplants. Because most donors can provide organs for more than one patient, that's approximately 1,200 potentially life-saving operations that have been prevented. Approximately 1,200 potentially unnecessary deaths. To put it in perspective, that's 24 times the number of people who were killed in the 7/7 terrorist attacks.
Despite this, it's an issue that's easy to ignore until someone you personally know someone in need of a transplant. When that happens, it becomes obvious that the current system is seriously flawed.
Respecting the wishes of registered donors as default — rather than asking next of kin for formal consent before organs are used — is a step in the right direction. Hopefully, it will reduce the number of families making ill-thought-out, emotional decisions without properly comprehending their consequences.
However, it's not clear why relatives should retain the right to veto transplants if they provide reasons in writing. What possible justification could trump the desire of the individual themselves to become an organ donor? If the explanation is religious, why should we grant people the legal right to inflict their beliefs on others after their death? They didn't have that right while they were still alive.
Why don't we have an opt-out system like Wales?
Really, it's almost missing the point to focus too much on what the deceased wanted. The people who matter most in all of this are the individuals fighting for their life as they linger on the UK national transplant waiting list. What right is more important than the right to stay alive?
Ideally, we need to maximise the number of available donor organs, to give as many people as possible the chance to keep on living. One problem is that many people who wouldn't object to becoming organ donors never think to register. For young and healthy people, particularly, thinking about what would happen if you died can seem morbid and unnecessary.
Despite the fact 96% of the UK population are in support of organ donation, only 33% are actually registered donors. That means the number of available organs available could nearly treble if the rest of the UK switched to the 'opt-out' system recently introduced in Wales. From 1 December 2015, it's automatically assumed that people consent to becoming donors unless they make an active decision to remove themselves from the register.
This change will likely save thousands and thousands of lives over time without taking away people's right to decide what happens to their own body after death.
For people who live in other parts of the country, registering as a donor can be easily done online. If you're part of the 63% of people who've just not got round to it yet, why not make it your good deed for the day? It only takes two minutes and, thanks to today's announcement, it's even more likely your wishes will be respected than it was before.