COMMENTARY

Should Prisoners Be Allowed to Donate Organs? No!

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD

Disclosures

December 26, 2013

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Hi. I am Art Caplan, from the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Langone Medical Center in New York City.

Should prisoners who are on death row be allowed to donate their organs when they are executed? This issue keeps coming up again and again. In a recent case in Ohio, a man facing execution, who had exhausted his appeals, requested that he be allowed to donate his organs to his mother and his sister. His sister is on dialysis; his mother has a heart problem. Another case like this has come up in Oregon.

Many, many people say that if we are so short on organs, and we are executing people, why are we not using organs from these prisoners? Particularly when the prisoners themselves raise the opportunity or raise the issue to say they want to do it, why do we not allow this? Could we make something good happen from something evil and tragic?

The Ohio prisoner, by the way, was sentenced to death for child murder. He was an absolutely evil and bad person. I believe one issue that confounds this notion of allowing prisoners to donate organs is whether we should permit them to do something that may get them viewed as heroes when they have done terrible, heinous things.

That is to say, if we are going to punish people, part of the punishment is that they cannot redeem themselves. Perhaps organ donation ought to be off-limits because it makes someone who did something terrible, whom we are going to execute in some states, look like he is not such a bad person. That is a battle, if you will, about theories of punishment.

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