Why Can't Death Row Inmates Donate Organs?

Christian Longo is one of 35 men on death row in Oregon. He and about half of the others want to donate their organs after they are executed, to help save the lives of others who need organ transplants. There's no law preventing it, but prisons across the country won't accept their requests. Here is his op-ed in today's New York Times.

Christian is not seeking a sentence reduction or special treatment. He's abandoned his appeals.

I spend 22 hours a day locked in a 6 foot by 8 foot box on Oregon’s death row. There is no way to atone for my crimes, but I believe that a profound benefit to society can come from my circumstances. I have asked to end my remaining appeals, and then donate my organs after my execution to those who need them. But my request has been rejected by the prison authorities.

He has started an organization called GAVE, Gifts of
Anatomical Value from Everyone.

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    I can think of a couple of reasons (5.00 / 0) (#4)
    by andgarden on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:08:51 PM EST
    First, it arguably creates a bad incentive (i.e., "I guess it's not so bad after all if we can use his organs").

    Second, it's plausible that there would be some danger in using the organs from an individual chemically executed. I don't know the science here.

    Looks like we're on the same page (5.00 / 0) (#5)
    by Anne on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:24:02 PM EST
    with this; but I don't know how to overcome either possible consequence.  It isn't part of the whole criminals-are-irretrievably-bad mindset, and we don't need any more reasons to convict and condemn people to death.  And you know that if they allowed death-row inmates' organs to be donated, there would be little reason not pressure access to the organs of those with life sentences -  and prisoners-as-living-repositories-of-viable-organs is way too science fiction for me.

    Science fiction writer (none / 0) (#7)
    by Zorba on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:39:54 PM EST
    Larry Niven has, indeed, created a "future world" where prisoners are harvested for their organs.  In his world, organ transplants have become so fool-proof and so easy, and thus organs have become such a desirable commodity, that more and more crimes have become capital crimes (including certain traffic offenses) in order to satisfy the demand for organs.

    I don't think I've ever read (none / 0) (#11)
    by andgarden on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 06:54:44 PM EST
    about that before, but the problem seems like an obvious one.

    The only way it ever becomes... (none / 0) (#13)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 08:42:02 PM EST
    ..."fool-proof and easy" is if stem cell technology progresses to the point that one can regenerate their own organs.  

    Besides the very finite shelf-life of a harvested organ, you can't just take something out of someone and slap it someone else.  Too many type and crossmatching/rejection issues to overcome in a human to human transplant.


    I've heard tell of this future world (none / 0) (#14)
    by Socraticsilence on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 11:06:00 PM EST
    they call it "China."  Seriously, though Niven was insightful considering that his books that touched on the issue came out long before the Chinese began Organ Harvesting.

    My first thought (5.00 / 1) (#12)
    by sj on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 07:31:01 PM EST
    was the chemicals as well.  But patients in treatment and on life support are full of all sorts of medications.

    My second thought was wondering if they feel they are "protecting" the recipient.  Some transplant patients might object to the idea.  If so, I say let the patient decide.  If the inmate chooses, and the recipient agrees, I guess I don't have a problem with it.

    Having said that, if I were the patient in that situation, I don't know what I'd do.  From a "metaphysical" perspective, I (believe I) would be reluctant, but if it was that or death?  Hard to say.


    I don't thnk there is much research... (none / 0) (#8)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 06:08:27 PM EST
    ...on the effects of the lethal injection cocktail on the viability of tissue/organs for transplantation.  

    I wouldn't be surprised if the prison population also, on the whole, has a higher incidence of HepC, HIV/Aids and other disease that precludes transplantation.  


    An interesting article... (none / 0) (#9)
    by MileHi Hawkeye on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 06:47:43 PM EST
    ...found here that touches on the subject.

    ::Shudder:: (none / 0) (#10)
    by andgarden on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 06:52:49 PM EST
    I can't even read that. I think I've decided that I'm ethically pretty uncomfortable with this.

    It's one of those situations where it's easier to feel good about the individual situation (i.e., "let him donate his organs") than the general one (i.e., "death row inmates should routinely be asked to donate their organs.")


    Is it because of the costs involved? (none / 0) (#1)
    by Yes2Truth on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 04:46:02 PM EST

    Is THAT the reason why this offer has been rejected?

    I was thinking two things: (5.00 / 1) (#2)
    by Anne on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:03:33 PM EST
    one, that organ donation is a good thing, and it skews everything if people start to think of convicted criminals as having even one iota of humanitarian spirit; and, two, that maybe prisons would end up being organ farms, and we could end up sending people to prison because of the organs they could contribute and not so much to pay the consequences of the crimes they were convicted of.

    Who knows...I've pretty much given up trying to figure out anything, since there isn't much of it that makes sense.


    The Problem Is That Donating Your Organs (none / 0) (#3)
    by john horse on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:07:49 PM EST
    is a humanitarian act and those who support our prison industrial complex see prisoners as something other than human.  

    On the other hand, I'll bet many of them would have no problem harvesting prisoner's organs if it was involuntary.

    I once saw a horror movie that would indicate (none / 0) (#6)
    by steviez314 on Sun Mar 06, 2011 at 05:30:20 PM EST
    that this is not a good idea.

    so what's the problem? (none / 0) (#15)
    by cpinva on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 01:37:35 AM EST
    human beings are, after all, merely fungible commodities, to be used by the john galts as they deem proper.

    granted, ayn rand was probably clinically insane (anyone who ever saw the video tape of mike wallace's interview with her would believe this), and certainly no moral or intellectual titan (her first big "girly" crush was on a murderer, "who saw what he wanted and took it"), but still.........

    Agreed With Most (none / 0) (#16)
    by ScottW714 on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:01:41 AM EST
    As more prisoners end up in privately run facilities, this seems like a very exploitable resource.

    What about lifers, or people who are killed, what incentive would there be to keep prisoners alive.  Mayhem and pandemonium will occur somewhere if organs are the byproduct, especially if there and financial rewards and no doubt there would be.

    For executions, it would require a surgeon on hand and it's my understanding that reputable doctors don't make the finale declaration.  I just can't see any organ harvesting surgeon comfortable with waiting for the state to kill the patient.

    Chemicals, pretty sure that would be resolved prior to the program being approved, ditto with electrocution.

    Plus, who wants the organs of what are generally the worse of the worse society has.  I can't say because I am healthy, but seems like I wouldn't want the heart of a mass murderer.

    I would argue that donations to family member could be the exception.  I have heard of prisoners donating kidneys from prison.

    Oregon (none / 0) (#17)
    by CoralGables on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:05:54 AM EST
    had their last execution 14 years ago. I hope the situation never arises again in Oregon where there is a chance for them to donate after execution.

    A good idea, and one that might gain traction, is to start working on a living kidney transplant program through the prison system. The backlog for kidneys is huge and it would be interesting to see if those same inmates are interested in donating before the appeals process expires.

    Too creepy to contemplate... (none / 0) (#19)
    by kdog on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:28:15 AM EST
    any kind of official organ donation program regarding prisoners...way too creepy.

    But absent an official program or coercion of any kind, I don't see why this man's last wish can't be honored...it is certainly a noble one.  

    I agree with the commenters that say the prison authorities problem is the diplay of humanity by somebody in line to be executed...just doesn't jive with the execution program.


    Actually (none / 0) (#20)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:44:11 AM EST
    Jeralyn is wrong - it IS against the law in every state for a death row inmate to anonymously donate their organs after execution.

    From my link below:

    All states prohibit organ procurement from death row prisoners and do not allow these prisoners to donate organs after death. Despite the attempts from various states below, no legislation has been passed allowing condemned prisoners to donate their organs.

    Makes sense... (none / 0) (#21)
    by kdog on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:55:48 AM EST
    a law against the condemned showing any signs of humanity....to ease executioner consciences perhaps?

    I definitely would not be down with any kind of official prison program...conflicts of interest and all...but when it is wholly voluntary on the part of death row inmates, their wishes can and should be honored as the last request of a dying man...anything less would be piling inhumanity on top of inhumanity.


    Ok, my cite may be old info (none / 0) (#22)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:05:50 AM EST
    But I understand you want to turn this into a "humanitarian" issue because you hate all things law enforcement, but there are actual public health and ethics issues involved.

    To be as cynical as you, don't you think the prisons could find a way to make money of this if they could?


    The U.S. Department of Justice Federal Bureau of Prisons said in a program statement that deceased federal inmates (inmates who died in prison-as distinguished from executed prisoners) are permitted to donate their organs if they wish. This same statement also clarifies that an inmate can be a living donor as long as the recipient is a member of the inmate's immediate family, and providing the family bears the cost of the procedure, but this too is an overarching rule, and specific laws about living donations in prisons vary from state to state (Meslin, Eric M. Ph.D. "Death Row Organ Donation.").  The United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) is a "non-profit, scientific and educational organization that administers the nations only Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), established by the congress in 1984." (LINK to UNOS website) The UNOS ethics committee "opposes any strategy or proposed statute regarding organ donation from condemned prisoners until all of the potential ethical concerns have been satisfactorily addressed." Because UNOS is the only organization ever to manage the OPTN and to facilitate the organ matching and donation process in the United States, their stance on the issue is very important, and probably one of the main reasons that all states currently prohibit procurement from death row prisoners and do not allow these prisoners to donate after their deaths even if it is in accordance with their wishes.

    Of course, a couple of years ago, China had a big scandal about this. Of course, they also execute their prisoners by shooting them in the back of the head, so there aren't any chemicals left in the blood stream, so WIN-WIN for them, I guess. <snark>


    Would be voluntary (none / 0) (#23)
    by CoralGables on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:08:12 AM EST
    and why not for any prison inmate. As of this morning, there are 600 Oregonians waiting for kidney transplants. Why not let it be a viable option for anyone wanting to donate?

    Prison authorities... (none / 0) (#24)
    by kdog on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:21:11 AM EST
    being involed at all plants seeds of doubt at how voluntary it really is.  

    I got no problem with prisoners donating kidneys, as long as the only time the prison gets involved is to sign off on transporting the prisoner to a hospital for the operation...any more involvement, the slope gets too slippery.


    Who pays for that? (none / 0) (#25)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:25:03 AM EST
    Whoever is able... (none / 0) (#27)
    by kdog on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:35:11 AM EST
    the receiver of the donated kidney, their insurance, public assistance in cases of hardship, a charity...however kidney transplants are normally paid for.

    If you're talking about the bus ride back and forth, I think the prison could handle that small cost to help save a life.


    Dialysis vs Transplant (none / 0) (#29)
    by CoralGables on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 12:04:33 PM EST
    Approximately three-quarters of all US dialysis patients have Medicare as their primary insurance.

    About 10% is paid through medicaid.

    About 10% are covered through employer group health plans or other private insurance and the other 5% picked up by the hospital.

    As for costs...a transplant costs about the same as 2 1/2 years of dialysis making a transplant far cheaper in the long run in taxes.

    Kidney donation lowers government spending :)


    Not the cost to the patient (none / 0) (#31)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 12:14:48 PM EST
    The cost for the prisoner - not the receiver.  Transportation, security, the procedure itself, the hospital stay, etc.

    Yes, taxpayers pay for prisoners to go to hospitals all the time.  My question is - how much would these donations cost.  It is not indicative of whether they should do it or not, I was just wondering.


    Would require advance testing for (none / 0) (#33)
    by oculus on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 01:05:12 PM EST
    suitability, a great deal of follow-up re the donor's health, security (read armed correctional officers) for the donor.  Expensive and not all that simple.  Not impossible, but not simple.

    I don't think kdog (none / 0) (#26)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:29:13 AM EST
    and many around here would like all the strings that could come with it.

    Would it be truly voluntary?

    It would take a long time - you have to wait for them to be executed - how many people has Oregon executed lately? (In other words, would it make a difference to those 600 people on the list?)

    There is also the option if Longo or other death row inmates want to "do good", they can always donate their body to science.


    Hardly an issue. (none / 0) (#28)
    by sj on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 11:43:30 AM EST
    "you have to wait for them to be executed"

    Ever known anyone on a donor list?  Right now they're already waiting for some one to die.  

    There are ethical considerations and arguments to be made for sure.  But that one's just ridiculous.


    Executions (none / 0) (#30)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 12:12:56 PM EST
    can take decades.

    Organ donors who are death row inmates are not going to die anytime soon.  So, my point is not ridiculous - those 600 people in Oregon will not benefit one bit by making Christian Longo, or any other death row inmate, a donor.


    it is certainly ridiculous (none / 0) (#32)
    by sj on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 12:27:33 PM EST
    When I marked the "donor" check box on my driver's license I'm not doing a darn thing for anyone on the donor list today.  (barring that, you know, "hit by a bus" scenario)

    That is absolutely no different from a potential death row donor.

    I'm struggling with this idea myself.  Don't make me defend it by giving ridiculous arguments against.


    right now, yes. (none / 0) (#34)
    by cpinva on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 03:31:40 PM EST
    Executions can take decades.

    given a financial incentive, that time-frame can easily be reduced, by legislative fiat, to months. were i in the private, for-profit, prison industry, i might begin to see my charges as living inventory, with a much higher gross profit margin dead than alive.

    there are all kinds of spare parts that can be culled, and sold at a hefty profit. aside from the major organs, arteries, veins, skin and bone tissue can all be harvested and sold for use on living patients. most prisoners are worth far more dead, from a medical point of view, than alive.

    and don't fret your pretty little head about a dearth of unethical doctors to supervise the process; if enough cash is involved, someone can always be found to bear that burden.


    Which is why it's not an easy solution (none / 0) (#35)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 05:08:36 PM EST
    Like I said before - health and ethics reasons.

    Here you go (none / 0) (#18)
    by jbindc on Mon Mar 07, 2011 at 10:23:26 AM EST