UK: towards an opt-out system for organ donation?

Last October, Theresa May initiated plans to implement an Opt-out system in the UK with a view to increasing the availability of organs for people in need of a transplant. Already in place in some EU countries (Belgium, France, Spain, etc.), the system relies on presumed consent from the deceased person to donate his/her organs at the time of death. Under this system, people who are unwilling to donate their organs are to expressly take steps to make this known to the Administration. It is tempting to see the Opt-Out system as the obvious solution to increase donation rates. However, detractors of the UK Government initiative claim that there is no sufficient evidence that this is so. Indeed, in practice, the consent from the family is always being sought, including in Opt-Out systems and that is more where the issue lies.

In order to progress on this matter, the UK government will launch a public consultation asking three questions: how much say should families have in their deceased relative’s decision to donate their organs? When would exemptions to “opt-out” be needed, and what safeguards will be necessary? How might a new system affect certain groups depending on age, disability, race or faith?

The last question touches on the issue of the lack of organs from ethnic minorities with only about 6% of donors being black or Asian, although those groups make up about 10% of the population in the UK. Is the question of organ donation linked to culture, faith and beliefs? Probably. But thanks to clear policies, appropriate implementation mechanisms, awareness raising, communication and training professionals, things can certainly change.

Scepticals believe the Government should not be moving towards an Opt-Out system until there is evidence that such system is successful and it is evident that it won’t undermine people’s trust in the system in the long-term. It might however be more appropriate to change perspective and think about how to implement an Opt-Out system that works, rather than about whether to implement such a system or not.