The Government Wants Your Body Parts

Amy Oliver
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Posted: Sep 10, 2011 12:01 AM

I am an organ donor. The little red heart in the bottom right hand corner of my driver’s license alerts medical personnel to my wishes in case of my death.

My husband is not.  He is not comfortable with the idea of someone harvesting his organs should he be pronounced “brain dead.” My 17-year-old son agreed to be an organ donor when he got his license. Recently he changed his mind and his status. I understand their unease.  It’s one thing to give a kidney to a family member but having organs removed from your body because a doctor said you have no brain activity is another. It does not change my mind, but I respect their decision on their own bodies.

Organ donation is an incredibly personal decision with differing opinions within families, and it is no place for government. But that has not stopped the Department of Health and Human Services this year from using more than $1 million of your tax dollars to target specific populations including teens, families and ethnic minorities to increase the percentage of organ donors.

The University of Hawaii Manoa recently received a $196,606 grant to increase the percentage of Asian-American/Pacific Islander adolescents in Hawaii who are designated organ donors on their state-issued driver’s licenses or identification cards.

The project titled “Multimedia Intervention to Motivate Ethnic Teens to be Designated Donors” is “theoretically-derived intervention [that] will include culturally sensitive messages and information about being a designated donor [DD] that will be delivered via a DVD, Email, text/instant messaging, slam poetry, and webpages (e.g., myspace.com).”

According to the project description, the “primary outcome is objectively validated donor status on a teens' driver's license/ID or donor card after 12 months of intervention. A secondary outcome is the reported rate of family discussions about organ donation and knowledge/intentions about donation.”

The project coordinators hypothesize that MySpace and rap music can make organ donation appeal to Hawaiian kids.  It concludes with this wish, “If IMI methods can increase the number of minority teens who become a DD on their driver’s license by 10% would translate to 500,000 more teenage designated donors in the U.S.”

Maybe to government or the University of Hawaii, these 500,000 additional teenagers are simply a statistic; but they also represent individual sons and daughters. I certainly sympathize with those waiting for organ transplants; still it does not justify pressuring teenagers into agreeing to give up their body parts. 

Another grant for $532,948 to Virginia Commonwealth University targets grieving families in hospitals who the project labels as “donation-eligible patient’s family” or “donor-eligible families,” forgetting the fact they are people coping with the lose of a husband, wife, mother, father, son or daughter.

Apparently “no more than 60% of the families of donation-eligible individuals consent” to having their loved one’s body parts removed just because a doctor approves. So government gets involved by funding a grant for “Early Referral and Request Approach (ERRA) intervention to raise consent rates.”

The “Public Relevance Statement “ concludes “There are over 96,000 patients on the transplantation waiting list but no more than a fraction of these patients will receive an organ transplant in any given year. This study proposes an intervention to help increase the rates of organ donation and alleviate the organ shortage.”

The ethical conflict here is that these government-funded grants assume the value of the life of a recipient is superior to the value of the life of the donor who is doctor-described “brain dead.”  The care of one patient takes precedence over another. That is a slippery slope.

In my home state of Colorado, we have the highest rate of designated donors in the nation.  Sixty-six percent of residents with a state-issued driver’s license or state ID card agree to be organ donors.  Despite the high level of participation, it still wasn’t enough for one misguided state lawmaker. Senator Lucia Guzman introduced legislation to convert our successful voluntary opt-in to an opt-out.

Even in a state that overwhelming supports organ donation, this government-sanctioned invasion of our bodies was too much. The public outcry was loud and immediate.  Guzman eventually killed her bill due to lack of support.

Still, she cited the “need” for organ donors.  Colorado currently has nearly 2000 patients languishing on transplant wait lists. But that “need” does not give anyone the right to someone else’s body.  The nonprofit Donor Alliance, which helps facilitate transplants in Colorado and Wyoming, felt the backlash of this overreach.  The Denver Post reported “the voluntary donor registry got an unusually high number of people calling to take themselves off the list when news of the bill broke.”

I don’t question Guzman’s good intentions to help find organs for those who need them, but violating an individual’s right to choose if he can keep his body in tact is immoral.

A third grant from the Department of Health and Human Services for $109,178 to Case Western Reserve University targets minorities in Ohio.  According to the project description, “many members of minority groups are reluctant to donate organs. The driver's license is the most common means to sign up to become an organ donor. Yet prior efforts have not aggressively targeted individuals at the time they obtain their driver's license.”

This project assumes that individuals within minority groups couldn’t possibly have come to a decision that they don’t want to be organ donors on their own so government feels that a grant to target them “aggressively” is justified.  As if all it takes is a little aggressive education to get someone to give up his or her body parts.

A fourth grant for $186,847 went to Cedar-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles to “increase the organ donation rate in the Hispanic American population in the County of Los Angeles by implementing programs that increase organ donation awareness and organ donor registrations” within three specific zip codes.

There is something horribly sinister about government getting involved and pressuring specific groups including kids who can’t even view an R-rated movie to turn over parts of their body in case something tragic should happen to them. 

And spending $1,025,579 of our tax dollars to do it adds insult to injury.

Amy Oliver Cooke is the founder of Mothers Against Debt (www. Mothersagainstdebt.com). She is also the director of the Colorado Transparency Project for the Independence Institute and writes on energy policy.  She can be reached at amy@i2i.org