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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Organ Transplantation Question

Today I had my second neuroanatomy laboratory class. What it entails is a two hour period in the basement of the Medical Sciences building in a pair of small rooms examining actual human brain tissue. For most people in the class (myself included) this is the first time handling dead human tissue. For many of the medical school hopefuls this is an exciting novelty and you can see the proud fantasies of future med-school anatomy classes playing out in many minds around the room. For me, it is a messy and somewhat unpleasant experience filled with the stench of formaldehyde, but I recognize it is also a valuable learning tool and I commend those who would donate their bodies after death to the pursuit of knowledge and training of students.

Working with human tissue, however, sparks some interesting conversations. One such topic was the issue of organ donation. The other fellow at my lab table mentioned that he heard the Canadian government was trying to change their policy on organ donation to something that one has to opt out of rather than opt into. While I think that is a grand idea to ensnare all of the apathetic masses who haven't really thought about it and thus care not what happens to their organs after they die (and, I would argue that no one actually cares what happens to their organs after they die, but that is not a properly Canadian pluralistic attitude which respects the beliefs of others, so for the moment I will let that go), I do recognize that there might be those who do care who will not realise they need to opt out (also, for the sake of this argument, I will leave out the argument of whether or not their squeamish uncomfortability constitutes a good enough reason to deny prompt medical treatment to those who need it). Before I was able to make any of these nuanced and insightful points, however, one of the girls at the table flat out remarked, "That's horrible!" When others professed surprise, she continued, "Yeah, I don't want anyone taking my organs." Somehow, the conversation moved on after that (I think we were having troubling locating all the cranial nerves), but it was only after I left the lab that I thought of what I should have asked. I do not know what her reasons were for not wanting her organs utilized after she died, but regardless of that fact I would have liked to ask, "If you were suffering from an illness for which the only viable treatment was an organ transplant, would you accept one?" If the answer is yes, I think that is horrifyingly hypocritical and contemptible. If the answer is no, while I fundamentally disagree with the person (I believe in the utility and humanity modern medicine, after all) at least there is a consistent opinion on where his or her organs belong. I therefore relate this story in case anyone else for some reason finds themselves having a conversation about organ transplantation with someone who does not wish to be an organ donor. If you can (or, if any of my readers happen to have that outlook), could you ask that person (or yourself) that question, please? I think it might at least spark some introspection.


Jolly Bloger said...

I will ask that question if I find myself in a similar situation.

It's a pretty fundamental part of my personal ethics that a person owns their own body, and I'm pretty much universally opposed to government run opt-out programs of any sort.

However, I totally agree with this one, because it is also a fundamental concept that dead bodies are not people. However squeamish or off-putting it may be, I think its not only useless, but harmful to think of a corpse as anything but a lump of meat. Not something worthy of respect or dignity, and certainly not something capable of owning property.

Anonymous said...

From an aesthetic point of view, if no other, a dead body is worthy of respect. But otherwise it certainly should be available for transplants. It is interesting that more and more are opting for cremation. If that is so and there are no religious reasons for the body to remain whole, why not have it automatically available for transplants. Have persons opt out instead of in.

Anonymous said...

While I myself have signed up to be an organ donor and agree that, once I am dead, I have no further use for this body (although I suspect I disagree strongly with the author on what happens to the soul after death). However, mandatory organ donations, or even an opt out system bothers me because I do not trust the 'system' to always do the right thing. Look to the recent experience in China if you want to know where that slippery slope can lead. Some things it is better the state stay out of, because that 'greater good' you think it will deliver may result ultimately in a greater evil that is worse than the current situation.