11 Oct 2011

Organ donors ‘should get funeral funds’

The NHS should pay for organ donors’ funerals to encourage more volunteers and boost life-saving operations, says a new bioethics report.

Organ donors should get funeral funds (getty)

A report from the Nuffield Council on Bioethics says that a pilot scheme offering a funeral fund for organ donors would help to gauge public opinion and could boost the number of donors.

Three people die every day while waiting for an organ, Nuffield said, and paying for organ donors’ funerals could be an ethical incentive to encourage more people to sign the register.

The report rejected the idea of a system where organ donation is the default option and where organs would be transferred unless patients specifically opt out, but it backed a “mandated” or “prompted” system where people are encouraged to make a choice.

There are currently 8,000 people on the organ transplant waiting list in the UK and the average wait for a suitable donor is three years.

Although 18 million people are on the organ donor register, few die in circumstances where they are able to donate their organs, says Keith Rigg, a member of the working party behind the report, and a consultant transplant surgeon at Nottingham University Hospitals NHS Trust.

“In considering whether this would be ethical, firstly we did not think this would be harmful to the donor,” he said. “It would fit in with the altruistic approach to donation as the perceived reward of funeral expenses would not benefit the donor directly but it might help their family at a very difficult time.

“Families will of course be able to turn the offer down if they so wished.”

We worry that offering funeral expenses in return for organs may result in families leaning on sick relatives to donate. Roger Goss, Patient Voice

The proposal is part of a series of recommendations following an 18-month inquiry into the ethics of encouraging people to donate in a range of health areas, including major organs to eggs, sperm, blood, tissue and whole bodies.

Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern, who headed the inquiry said: “Paying for the funerals of organ donors would be ethically justified – no harm can come to the donor, and it would be a form of recognition from society.

However Roger Goss, co-director of Patient Concern, said: “We worry that offering funeral expenses in return for organs may result in families leaning on sick relatives to donate because it can save thousands of pounds.

“The number of cases that reach the court of protection because those holding power of attorney treat their charges as cash cows should be a warning that this is only too likely.”

He added: “We deplore the council’s apparent acceptance of presumed consent as ethical and merely an issue of whether or not it produces more donors.”