About a week ago, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown suggested in a UK Telegraph column that allowing hospitals to harvest organs from dead patients without their prior consent or their families' post-mortem consent might be a good idea.
Mr. Brown's occasion for bringing up the topic was telling, and perhaps explains why Brown's proposal got very little coverage in the US:
This year will be the 60th anniversary of the National Health Service: a year to celebrate and thank all the staff who run our hospitals, clinics and GP practices; but also a year in which to renew the NHS for the 21st century, because I believe that only by renewal can we make the NHS even more relevant for future decades than it has been in the past.
..... we may need to do more to encourage more of us to donate (organs. In Britain we have 14.9 million people on the organ donor register - which is around 24 per cent of the population. In terms of actual donors (not just people willing to give, but those whose organs are actually used) we have a rate of about 13 donors per million in our population. This compares with about 22 per million in France, 25 per million in America and around 35 per million in Spain - the best in the world.
That is why I want to start a debate in this country about whether we should take steps to move towards a new system designed to enable far more of us to benefit from transplant surgery - one that better reflects survey findings that around 90 per cent of us are in favour of organ donation.
Sadly, only around a quarter of us have made specific advance arrangements by registering as potential organ donors. So about two-thirds of us - positive, but not registered as organ donors - are unable to help save the lives of others by organ donation when the circumstances arise.
A different consent system, more like the one used in Spain, could serve to increase donation levels significantly. Of course, any "opt-out" system would - in cases where the potential donor is not on the register - leave the final decision with the family: that is only right and proper.
Official denials to the contrary, the row stirred up by the Prime Minister's suggestion moved the government to publicize procedural changes at hospitals designed to increase organ donation -- without resorting to the "presumed consent" regime Mr. Brown proposed.
Those relatively mundane procedural changes got more coverage in the US press than Mr. Brown's "presumed consent" proposal.
A Google News search on "brown organs taken without consent" (search did not use quote marks) between January 11 and 15 found 52 articles. No more than a few are from US Old Media sources. One of them, in USA Today, is entitled "UK leader hints at changing organ donor system" in Google News, but carries the title of "U.K. leader: Change organ donor process" at the actual article. The word "hint" does not appear in the article.
But the government's procedural changes were carried in an article called "British Seek to Boost Organ Donation" in at least these publications: SFGate (San Francisco Chronicle), US News, Michigan Live, Fox News, and many others. Though the AP article these publications carried did mention Brown's suggestion, it did so without noting the substantial protests that were raised against the idea.
No one seems to have explored the possibility that British reluctance to voluntarily donate organs compared to other countries might have something to do with fears that an organ-hungry NHS might allow lives to end prematurely so that usable organs might be placed with those who are more "deserving."
Also, no one wondered why citizens in the US are more likely to be willing donors. Could it be that it's because ours is stil a largely privately run system with a bit more compassion and higher ethical standards?
Cross-posted at BizzyBlog.com.