Let prisoners donate their organs

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Article Highlights

  • The longstanding arguments against living prisoner donation are unconvincing.

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  • Inmates are allowed to donate to family members and prisons can draw on their experience from handling those donations.

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  • Donation can also be part of rehabilitation, preparing a prisoner for eventual freedom though thoughtful decision-making.

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Editor's note: This article originally appeared in The New York Times' Room for Debate in response to the question: With nearly 118,000 people in the U.S. waiting for hearts, kidneys, livers and other life-saving transplants, why not let inmates become donors?

Prisoners should be allowed to become living kidney donors. It’s hardly the solution to the national organ shortage, but donation could be part of the rehabilitation of the select few who want to bequeath their organs to the desperately needy.

The longstanding arguments against living prisoner donation are unconvincing.

It is true that H.I.V. and hepatitis C are prevalent in prisons. But the remedy is to sequester the prisoners for three weeks between the final medical testing and the transplant date so they can’t acquire, and subsequently pass on, a virus before it can be detected.

Other logistical matters are surmountable. Inmates are allowed to donate to family members and prisons can draw on their experience from handling those donations.

One often hears that prisoners, as a class, can never give truly voluntary consent. Such absolutism does not do justice to this nuanced issue. What evidence supports the claim that prison itself distorts all inmates’ mental capacity to sort through the pros and cons of donation?

If healthy inmates are sincerely motivated to donate, fully educated about the risks and receive no special treatment in return, how are they not acting voluntarily? If there is no possibility of favored treatment, there is no offer that is “too good to refuse.”

Donation can also be part of rehabilitation, preparing a prisoner for eventual freedom though thoughtful decision-making and, ideally, restitution. Finally, justice is served by allowing people to repay their perceived debt to society in reasonable ways that they see fit. With all the constraints placed on prisoners – some necessary and important, others capricious – why prevent them from making a choice that in their eyes represents atonement and also frees a sick person from the prison of dialysis?

Would anyone want an organ from a prisoner? I’d take it. There was a time in 2006 when a healthy kidney from a willing and healthy prisoner would have saved me from a years-long sentence to dialysis and a guarantee of premature death.

As for donations at death from prisoners on death row, consider the case of Christian Longo, who awaits execution at Oregon State Penitentiary. In 2001, Longo killed his wife and three children. For years, he has petitioned the state to let him donate. “There is no way to atone for my crimes, but I believe that a profound benefit to society can come from my circumstances,” he wrote in a Times op-ed article.

Refusing Longo this opportunity may make sense to those who believe that a person who committed a monstrous crime should be denied any thing he desires. But the fact that Longo’s act could mean life for others should tip the balance in favor of granting him this last wish.

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