Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Sunday 13 January 2008

Are we helots or free individuals?

The UK Goverment has announced that it favours changing the law to make a presumption of consent to harvesting of human body parts after death, unless specific prior opposition had been registered or the deceased's family objects. At present only those who who have given prior consent may have their organs harvested after death, although this is sometimes thwarted, I understand, by the objections of family members. See (*) at the end of this article, too.

I have no personal objection to donating my organs and indeed have carried an organ donor card for many years, although I have not added my name formally to any 'Organ Donor Register' as this is presumably a centralised register and I have deep misgivings about the whoe concept of centralised registers for this or any other purpose (e.g. Personal Data Register, NHS online centralised records).

Now I learn that the Scottish Executive (aka 'Scottish Government') is sympathetic to the change suggested by the UK Government.

My position is very clear. I think I have the sole right to decide what will happen to my body parts after I die. I resent strongly the notion that if I were to object to the harvesting of my organs after my death (which as it so happens, I don't) that I must make a positive declaration to that effect. My body belongs to me, not to the State and the presumption is and should remain that no harvesting of body parts can occur without my specific prior consent. Similarly I will choose if and when I wish to end my life (since 1961 suicide has no longer been a crime), provided I am physically able to carry it out (assisting another to commit suicide remains a crime).

The reasoning behind criminalising assisting another to commit suicide is that there is a risk that the person's 'loved ones' might collude in a suicide because they may have a material interest in the person's death, or otherwise gain from it (for example a carer who is member of the family would be 'free' to pursue his/her own interests if there was no longer a requirement to care for the fmaily member who wishes to commit suicide). There is also the fear that 'loved ones' might tacitly, or even explicitly, encourage a relative to commit suicide or cause the person to feel they were doing the 'right thing' by committing suicide.

I'm afraid that whilst I think the effects of this law are sometimes harsh, specially when the person who wishes to commit suicide is physically unable through disablement or infirmity to carry it out without assistance it is probably a necessary precaution in most cases to prevent abuse. Notwithstanding this, I believe that the Swiss organisation Dignitas does valuable and worthwhile work; the link is to the part of the site which is designed to inform people from the UK about the organisation, as the main site is in German. A BBC article about this organisation is here.

To get back to the subject at hand, I think there is the potential for abuses with the harvesting of organs. Of course, we are told that body parts would only be harvested upon death (excepting the case of organ donations made of ogans which are in pairs (e.g. eyes, kidneys) where the donor can survive on one remaining organ, but what if the person was very old, or severely disabled, whereas the potential donee was young and otherwise physically fit? What if the person being looked at as a donor was regarded as in some way less worthy then the potential donee? Far-fetched, you may argue, but it is only a couple of weeks ago that the Prime MInister suggested that people could be refused treatment on the NHS if it was felt they should lose weight, stop smoking or take exercise. The fact that such people were most likely helping to pay for the NHS through their taxes seemed an irrelevant detail! How hard, in such circumstances, would medical personnel try to keep a potential donor alive, specially if the official attitude of the government is to make a presumption that body parts may be harvested unless the donor had lodged specific objection beforehand.

Many will say I am being alarmist. However, it is only a few years ago that it was discovered, accidentally, that for years doctors in various hospitals around the country had been taking organs from dead infants for medical experimentation, without the permission of parents, a matter which was discovered only when the body of an infant had to be exhumed after burial and it was found to be missing most of the vital organs. I think the scandal, when it was exposed, happened to involve a hospital in Liverpool, but was later found to have occurred elsehwere, too.

Basically what all this boils down to is individual liberty. This Government seeks to take unto itself the power of life and death over all citizens. However, the Government is only granted temporary powers by citizens at an election. I think the Government, indeed Parliament itself, would be going way beyond its mandate to change the law to permit post-mortem abstraction of body parts without the specific approval of the donor or, in some curcumstances, members of the deceased's family.

(*) A horrid aspect of this whole issue is the way that the Government's proposals are framed is to imply that a person is somehow lacking in civic-spiritedness by declining to agree to donate body parts after death, by stressing the long waiting-lists of potential donees awaiting body parts and organs. I may feel, and in fact I do feel, that it would be humane on my part to permit my body parts or organs to be taken after my death, if they could help someone else to live longer or in better health. However I would absolutely refuse to feel in any way guilty if I chose not to have this attitude and I object strongly to the moral blackmail being pushed down our throats by the government and the way this is being reported in the media, particularly the BBC, in its reporting today on this matter! It really is just like some of the public 'hate' or 'love' sessions described in George Orwell's novel 1984, where citizens were expected to follow the latest policy changes of 'Big Brother', however quixotic. On this subject in general a lot of the news reporting on the BBC of late has veered away from the delivery of news to the promulgation of propaganda on behalf of the government under the guise of 'manufactured' news stories.

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