April has been designated as National Donate Life Month and we at Life Legal want to take this opportunity to let you know about concerns we have with organ donor registries, namely premature organ harvesting of live patients who are unable to advocate for themselves.
Doctors pronounced twenty-one year-old Zack Dunlap brain dead in 2008 after the young man flipped his all-terrain vehicle and landed on pavement. His parents were told their son had no brain activity and would never recover. Zack’s driver’s license revealed he was an organ donor and just three days after his accident, he was prepped for organ harvesting. On the way to the operating room, a nurse—who happened to be Zack’s cousin—decided to try something. He scraped his pocketknife against Zack’s foot and to his shock, Zack moved his foot away. Turns out, Zack still needed his organs and has since made a significant recovery.
In light of cases like Zack’s, not to mention recent discoveries about the human brain’s amazing capacity for self-regeneration, one would assume that the now sixty-year-old brain death framework should be revisited to make sure we aren’t killing patients who are still very much alive. But that is not what is happening.
Instead, an alarming number of prominent bioethicists are suggesting that we do away with the dead donor rule entirely and start intentionally harvesting organs from still-alive donors. These bioethicists are arguing that it is okay for organ donation itself to be the cause of death, regardless of whether the patient is declared brain dead. The language they use is similar to what we’ve heard from supporters of physician-assisted suicide: that people should be able to choose how and when they die.
Life Legal has been on the frontlines of cases where registered organ donors are not given time to recover from their injuries before being declared brain dead. In other cases involving incapacitated patients, nutrition is removed to precipitate a cardiac event that results in the patient being declared “dead” in order to harvest organs. This is called Controlled Cardiac/Circulatory Death or CCCD.
While Life Legal does not take a position on organ donation as such, we strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with the organ harvesting process prior to deciding whether to register as an organ donor. Your decision about organ donation should be reflected in your advance health care directive.