Friday, May 8, 2009

"Organ Shortage"--What Does This Phrase Indicate?

As this blog goes on there will probably be certain themes that will recur with some degree of regularity. One of these themes will be issues in the area of bioethics (which is closely related to pro-life themes).

I have noticed something that strikes me as odd about the language used in articles about organ donation. At some point, usually the phrase, "organ shortage," or something similar is mentioned. Sometimes, concern is expressed over a rising need for organ donations.

Now, I am not against, in principle, that organs can be donated (provided that death is not hastened, or, that the donor is not in fact killed as a part of the "procurement" process). But I find it somehow off-base, all this talk of "shortages" of organs.

If there is a shortage of something, it means the supply of something has been lessened that normally is available in larger quantities. And this term, "shortage," also usually implies you are speaking of a resource which is normally available and is seen as something that is ordinarily used in an average person's life. There can be shortages of water, oil, gas, food, etc.

But, is it really appropriate to say there are "shortages" of organs that could be used by persons whose organs are failing?

If I were deathly ill and needed a new liver because mine was shot but I died first because one never came available, would that mean I died because of a "shortage" of livers available for donation? No! I would have died of the liver problem. No one dies because of a liver "shortage." But people do die from cirrhosis.

I would like to strenuously point out and affirm that donating organs is an entirely gratuitous thing; it should never be expected nor obligatory for anyone.

There is never a shortage of organs. What there is, is a certain incidence of diseases or injuries that damage organs enough so as to render them unable to function properly. But because organ donation requires either the death of the donor, or, at the very least a serious diminishing of the full natural bodily integrity of the donor (eg. in a kidney donation), organs should never be spoken of as though they are simply another among the many natural resources that have a typically expected supply level, such that there could be such a thing as a "shortage." It can make sense to say a drought produced a shortage of water. But an analogy to organs does not apply. Unless we are willing to say there is some number that is a usual amount of livers we should expect to be available for transplanting (from dead people into living people), we can't say sensibly that an outbreak of hepatitis produced a shortage of livers available for donation (since the number of needed livers would rise and therefore the number of people on an organ donation waiting list for new livers would likewise go up).

My underlying concern here is that when we speak of organ "shortages," we only take account of those who are ill and would benefit from a new organ. We typically ignore the other one-half of the reality of the situation which is the fact that in order for many (though not all) types of organ donations to occur, someone has to die in order to make an organ available. Taking this other half of the reality into account, if it were proper to say there is such a thing as organ "shortages," then this would be in effect the same as saying there is a shortage of people dying in enough numbers to permit their organs to be harvested for use in others' still-living bodies. But I hope my point is clear--we ought never say there is a shortage of the dying, and so too, we ought never say there are organ shortages (shortages which may require death to make the organ available).

Organ donation is an unexpected, out of the ordinary event. The character of the act of organ donation is never one of obligation, but of gratuity. It seems to me we are harming our culture in calling a disparity between the numbers of devastatingly diseased or injured organs and the number of organs available for donation, a "shortage." It's almost as though we are saying we should be eager for more death so we can save more lives.

1 comment:

  1. HI Scott me again, I find your blog topics very interesting, I do not see a shortage of any organs, go to India, healthy woman sell organs to black market and the money helps the family, you can see the scars left on their bodies, In China a prisioner must sign a release to give of organs to pay back the community for the crimes they have commited. Orphans, street children are stolen for organs, this is a fact, the black market is alive with organs and yes they make them into the hands of wealthy Americians.


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