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Organ donation: have your say

26 January 2018. Published by Emma Kislingbury, Associate

Organ donation is, for many, a difficult topic of conversation, but a Government consultation is encouraging us to think about it and share our views.

Last month, the Government launched a public consultation about organ and tissue donation. Its aim is to find out what the public thinks about proposed changes to the current system for donation.

Currently, in England, the organs of a person who has died can be used only if that person consented when they were alive, usually by registering as a donor. If the deceased had not made their wishes known, a family member can also agree to the donation. Although there is no legal requirement to do so, when appropriate consent has been given by the deceased person, their family will still be consulted in practice, and some families can find it difficult to accept a loved one's decision to register as a donor. Around 100 families a year do not support a deceased relative's decision to consent and in these cases, the donation does not proceed.  

Government statistics indicate that 3 people die each day because of a lack of suitable organs and that, under the current system, although 8 out of 10 people say that they would want to donate their organs and tissue after death, most people never register to be donors.  

The Government is now proposing a new 'opt-out' system, whereby everyone (subject to certain exempt groups of people) is presumed to give consent, unless they choose to opt out. The hope is that the numbers of organs donated, and lives saved, will be greatly increased.  

Wales introduced the 'presumed consent' model in 2015 and, in June last year, Scotland confirmed that it will follow suit, after a Government consultation found that 82% of the public was in favour.   

The subject of organ donation can be difficult for many reasons, not least because of the inevitable challenge of thinking and making decisions about one's own death. For some, religious beliefs or background can be a significant factor in their decision.  

One part of the consultation considers what role the family should play in these decisions - should they be able to make the final call and potentially overrule their relative's decision to be an organ donor? If a new 'opt-out' system is implemented, it seems likely that England may follow Wales and Scotland, and adopt a 'soft opt-out'. This means that a person's deemed consent can be rebutted if the family can show that the person was in fact opposed to donation (but had failed to opt-out when they were alive).    

Statistics published by the Government show that, under the current system, families are significantly more likely to support the donation of a relative's organs or tissue, if they know what that relative's views were. Sally Johnson, of NHS Blood and Transplant, which co-ordinates the organ donor scheme, said she hoped the consultation would "drive a national conversation about organ donation". Whatever your opinion may be, an open discussion with family and loved ones may help to ease difficult discussions and decision-making at the most challenging of times.    

The consultation closes on 6 March 2018; we will publish an update in due course.