JUDICIAL INTRUSION INTO ORGAN TRANSPLANTATION?

Desperate transplant candidates and families caught in the vast organ shortage in the U.S. should not be criticized for turning over every rock in search of a life-saving organ. But they can not all be winners who receive an organ within the allocation system. The discrepancy between supply and demand is simply too great. (register now to donate) This system of distribution has been devised over years, by multi-disciplinary teams of highly knowledgeable stakeholders (including patients and families) through transparent and democratic processes (Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network Policies). It is imperfect but iterative. Improvements are made. When a gap is identified within this incredibly complex set of policies, a process is followed to fix it. When an unfairness is perceived, a similar process of debate is initiated. Action – or not – is taken. Unilateral decisions that effect multiple patients are not made by individuals, any of whom has an intrinsic bias of one sort or another.

A recent bypass of this set of checks and balances was created when a Federal judge temporarily ordered the Secretary of Health and Human Services to alter the allocation scheme for an individual patient’s benefit (temporary restraining order).  This precedent has already generated legal action from at least one other patient seeking similar protection. One can only imagine the potential legal responses from the candidates who may be disadvantaged as a result of the relative advantage afforded to the original plaintiff/claimant. After all, this is a zero sum circumstance in which one patient’s benefit comes only at another patient’s loss.

Similar uninformed meddling in the transplant field on behalf of a patient came from a Mississipi judge who granted parole to one female prisoner with kidney failure on the condition that her similarly paroled sister donate a kidney to her. Unfortunately, neither had been accepted by a transplant program and both were declined because of obesity.

Legal intrusion into medical arenas as complex as the area of pre-transplant organ allocation +/or transplantation is not likely to facilitate better regulations, more transplants or a fairer system. The only actions that can effectively do so are successful efforts to diminish the organ shortage by individuals who register to donate and organizations that make broad efforts to support donation.

Caution is warranted to avoid generating chaos similar to a crowd surging to find a space on a lifeboat. While all involved are undoubtedly well intentioned, it may be most appropriate to consult knowledgeable persons in the transplant field prior to taking actions that may have far reaching consequences.

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