Caplan on Organs and Inmates

By Art Caplan

Are we ever capable of laying a stupid idea to rest in America?  Apparently not.  The latest tempest in the ever-resurrecting world of solutions to the shortage of organs is donation by executed prisoners.  The Governor of Ohio held up a plan to execute a man on death row when he requested that his organs be donated to his mother and sister each of whom have serious health problems.

According to the AP,

“Ohio Governor John Kasich on Wednesday stayed the execution of convicted killer Ronald Phillips to assess whether Phillips’s non-vital organs or tissues can be donated to his mother or possibly others. Phillips, 40, was scheduled to be executed Thursday for the 1993 murder of 3-year-old Sheila Marie Evans.

“I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues, then we should allow for that to happen,” Kasich said in a statement.”

The Governor need not have bothered.  What child rapist and murderer Ron Phillips had in mind was donating his heart and kidneys to his family.  He has shown no interest in helping anyone else nor did he ever mention tissue donation.

Moreover, getting organs from an executed prisoner is both impractical and immoral.

The modes of execution used in Ohio and other states have as their goal the induction of relatively rapid organ failure.  Electrocution, gassing and lethal injections are not good for organs—intentionally.  The only real execution techniques that might get you viable organs are a gunshot to the head—greatly favored in China or guillotining.  Neither is likely to be utilized in the U.S. where executions are publicly witnessed and full of procedures that take huge amounts of time.

The Governor or anyone else thinking about this bad idea should also realize that unless you are on life support organs have to come out quickly.  Executions need to be done with doctors standing by to saw out the viable bits.  Is this consistent with American medical ethics?  The AMA cannot even agree that it is moral for doctors to pronounce death much less stand by while a prisoner is shot.

Remember too a person on death row is likely to be in poor health—bad diet and not a lot of exercise.  The infection rate for HIV and hepatitis C among other nasty viruses is high in the prison population.

Put aside all the arguments about the morality of capital punishment and the decision to let murderers and moral fiends gain redemption through donation.  The practical fact is execution and organ procurement don’t mix unless we are ready to radically change how we execute, where and who is there.  We are, thankfully, not.  Can we put this topic to bed now once and for all?

(For more on this issue, see Arthur Caplan, The Use of Prisoners as Sources of Organs? An Ethically Dubious Practice, Am. J. Bioethics 11:10 (Oct. 2011).) 

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