Should death row inmates be given the right to donate their organs?

Photo from Flickr user Ashby

“An eye for an eye,” the adage about compensating for one’s wrongdoings applies quite literally to Ronald Phillips, a death row inmate who is fighting for the right to donate his organs after being executed.

Photo from Flickr user Ashby

Phillips was convicted of raping and murdering his girlfriend’s three-year-old daughter in 1993 and was consequently sentenced to death. Though he was slated to be executed by lethal injection on Nov. 14, officials postponed the procedure when he expressed the desire to have his organs donated to ailing family members.

Medical officials and ethicists have encountered this situation before and have previously denied inmates’ requests to donate. The Associated Press reports that Phillips’ public defender has come forward to the media and expressed that the “right” thing to do would be to “ensure that as many people as possible will benefit from the gift of life that Ron is so generously willing to bestow as his own life approaches its end.”

The issue at hand is very complex, evidenced by the fact that Phillips’ execution has been pushed to a tentative date in summer 2014, in order to provide enough time to deliberate and reach a decision. They will have to examine whether or not the medical need outweighs the ethical one. The United States Department of Health and Human Services estimates that every day, an average of 18 people die waiting for a transplant that cannot be performed due to a shortage of donations.

There is an increased need for viable organs, one that should not be ignored under any circumstances, despite the numerous arguments that can be formulated against an inmate’s case.

Medical experts claim that harvesting from Phillips would be “logistically impossible,” given that lethal injection causes organ failure. There is no protocol currently in place to help direct officials in this kind of situation. In the one situation where an inmate was permitted to donate a kidney in 1995, the organ was removed prior to his execution. Ethicists have divided opinions on this method since donors are typically declared brain dead before any harvesting begins.

Aside from the medical roadblocks, the idea is rejected on the grounds that it is immoral. Who wants a criminal’s organs? Some people taking part in the debate are disturbed with the idea of receiving a life saving piece of tissue from someone who unapologetically took life from someone else.

However, in reality, medical staff preserve the anonymity of the donor. A transplant recipient will likely never know where the organ or tissue came from. Additionally, there is no scientific proof that a transplant passes the genetics of the donor to the awaiting patient. Receiving a donation from a death row convict will not, by default, mess up your psychology and turn you into a crazed convict.

The intent here is not to sound cold or clinical. It’s been acknowledged that the issue is complex and emotionally taxing and needs to be examined objectively. If lives could be preserved this way, is that not worth it? There has to be a way to proceed in these situations. Clearly, the power to do so should be implemented in a step-by-step procedure to adequately handle the issues that will arise.

 The primary mistake that the government makes is putting its focus on the inmate, not the request. Society will waste so much time determining whether this final act would be altruistic and sincere that they forget the full scope of the issue. If Phillips thinks that donating his organs is restitution for his past, that is no one’s issue but his. People are forgetting that in one day, this one life may be exchangeable for 18 others. There is no sense in judging someone for whatever thought sends them off to death peacefully.

Ultimately in these circumstances the ends justify the means. The focus should be on ensuring the preservation and quality of life. The U.S. is supposed to be “one nation under God,” not “one nation playing God.”



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