Editorial: NZ's record on organ donations is pitiful. Time for a new approach.
Dominion Post - 4 March 2016
Organ donor campaigner Andy Tookey gives evidence to a select committee in 2007 with daughter Katie, then 5, who needs a new liver. She is still waiting, nine years on.
Editorial: It's starting to become clear why New Zealand's organ donation record is so pitiful. Intensive care doctors often don't even discuss organ donation with the families of brain-dead patients, according to an audit of Organ Donation New Zealand released under the Official Information Act.
If doctors don't even ask, the level of donations is unlikely to improve. But the audit also shows that even when doctors do ask, six out of 10 families refuse. Somehow this has to change.
Campaigner Andy Tookey says that in Spain, which has the highest level of organ donations in the world, doctors ask families repeatedly to donate. The result is that 85 per cent eventually agreed.
Many New Zealanders would feel uncomfortable about this kind of persistence. Families whose loved one is brain-dead are typically suffering shock and distress. It is entirely understandable that doctors don't want to compound the horror.
But somehow the question needs to be put, and it needn't be a horrifying thing. Chris Poynter, a doctor with experience in these matters, asks families to put themselves in the shoes of the loved one and think about what they would want rather than about their own preferences.
One improvement would be to have a massive publicity campaign so that families are more aware of the issue before they find themselves facing terrible decisions.
If families knew that many people are dying because of a lack of organ donations, they might be more inclined to give permission. If they had asked their own family members beforehand what they wanted, they would be better prepared to make the decision in hospital.
If it was common knowledge that hospitals would ask for organ donations, families would be less shocked when the doctor asked.
At present, would-be donors can note the fact on their driver licence, but this doesn't seem to play much part in the real world. The family can overrule their wishes. And it seems that unless the relatives ask, doctors won't even check your licence.
This seems to be carrying the family veto much too far. Why can families simply override what may be the strongly-held view of their loved one? The right to dispose of your body as you wish is surely a fundamental right of the individual, and it should not be easily set aside.
A wonderful example has been set here by Michael Boyes, a young Wellington man whose donations helped save the lives of seven strangers. Boyes, a profoundly thoughtful man, believed only "terrible" people would refuse to donate their organs. His family knew how strongly he felt about this, and honoured his wishes.
Nobody of course should be forced to donate and no family forced to agree to donation. Some Maori have a strong taboo against organ donation, because it violates a belief about the sanctity of the body. For the same reason, some Maori oppose cremation. These beliefs obviously must be respected.
None of this would get in the way of a national campaign to encourage more organ donation.
We need to see it as a noble and altruistic act.
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