The New York Times recently ran an op ed piece by Christian Longo, an Oregon death row inmate. In 2001, Longo murdered his wife, Mary Jane, and their three young children, Zachery, 4, Sadie, 3, and Madison, 2. He was sentenced to death for the murders, and from prison he has founded an organization, Gifts of Anatomical Value for Everyone, advocating that he and his fellow inmates be allowed to donate their organs after they’re executed.
The issue of death row organ donation is a controversial one. Among the arguments in support of allowing executed inmates to donate their organs is that there’s a potentially significant benefit to society. After all, more than a hundred thousand Americans are currently on organ waiting lists. According to the Mayo clinic, 19 people die each day while waiting for organ transplants. Allowing death row inmates to sign up as donors has the potential to increase the number of available viable organs and save lives. Plus, allowing these organ donations lets death row inmates perform a final, altruistic act despite their past crimes.
On the other hand, the 3-drug combination used by many states for executions damages an inmate’s organs and renders them useless. Ohio and Washington use a one-drug regimen that doesn’t compromise the viability of organs, and advocates of allowing donations want states to switch to this method of lethal injection. Another concern is the higher prevalence among the prison population of infectious diseases like HIV and Hepatitis. Opponents worry that these diseases will be passed on to recipients via infected organs. Proponents of allowing death row organ donation counter that this risk is no different than with anyone else and can be minimized by advanced screening.
There’s also the concern that inmates or their families will be coerced by the state to consent to donating organs, turning prisons into “organ farms.” This, in turn, leads to the worry that, if the public begins to see prisoners as valuable sources of donated organs, there will be an increase in the number of crimes that are defined as capital offenses as well as an upward trend in the number of death sentences that are meted out.
What do you think? Should death row inmates be allowed to donate their organs? Or do the risks and other factors outweigh the potential benefits?
Stephen C. Hartnett, J.D., LL.M.
Associate Director of Education
American Academy of Estate Planning Attorneys, Inc.
6050 Santo Rd Ste 240
San Diego, CA 92124