Law eases organ donation process, declares decisions are legally binding

Dylan Thomas

A Minnesotan’s wish to be an organ donor after his or her death is now legally binding under a new state law.

The law is designed to ease the lengthy organ donation process and help counter the huge disparity between the number of organ donors and those awaiting transplants.

There are more than 2,000 people awaiting transplants in the Midwest region, said Susan Mau Larson, spokeswoman for LifeSource. LifeSource is a nonprofit organization managing organ procurement and working with donors’ families and hospital staff in Minnesota, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wisconsin.

Despite the number of those in need of organs, there has been an average of 150 organ donors per year for the last decade, Larson said.

LifeSource is working with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety to increase education on the benefits of organ donation and to set up a computer database of people who have indicated they wish to become organ donors on their driver’s licenses – a system which is currently being tested.

Cynthia Herrington, a University pediatric cardiac surgeon, said one person’s organs could save the lives of eight people. She said she doubts the new law will speed up the donor process, but hopes it increases the number of donors through education.

She stressed the importance of donors talking with their families about the decision. Some families – unaware of the wishes of the deceased before their death – prevent the transplantation.

Larson said approximately 40 percent of people in LifeSource’s region have indicated they wish to be organ donors. However, only 60 percent of their families allow the organs to be transplanted.

“What this will do is allow the family to know what the Ö donor’s wishes were and potentially facilitate the process a little bit,” Herrington said.

Larson said more than 80,000 people nationwide are awaiting transplants, but only 20,000 will receive them this year. The number of people who will not get organ transplants – 60,000 – is up dramatically from a decade ago, when it was around 5,000.

“It’s growing at a crisis rate,” Larson said.

The disparity between organ donors and those awaiting transplants is partly due to advances in medical science. Advanced transplantation techniques have increased the number of people eligible for organ transplant, while the number of donors has remained steady.

Dianne Bartels, associate director of the University’s Center for Bioethics, raised some concerns about the new law. She said it could lead people to distrust the organ donation process if a relative’s organs are taken by a hospital against the family’s wishes.

She said problems could be avoided if donors communicate their wishes to family members.

“Your family should be the first to know, because the very hardest decisions are people who have no idea what their relatives would have wanted,” Bartels said. “The registry and education will help in part, but each of us also has a responsibility.”