The NHS should consider the idea of paying for the funerals of organ donors as a way of encouraging more people to join the Organ Donor Register, says a new report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics.
The report – Human bodies: donation for medicine and research – suggests that such an incentive could be an ethical way of addressing the current shortage of organs being made available for transplant.
Over 8,000 people in UK are on the waiting list for an organ transplant, with average waiting time of three years for a suitable donor to become available. Three people die every day whilst waiting for an organ. Currently, 18 million people – around 30 per cent of the UK population – are signed up to the Organ Donor Register, but the NHS is aiming to increase this to 25 million by 2013.
Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern, who chaired the 18-month inquiry which led up to this report, said: "Government initiatives to improve the health of the population are crucial to reducing the number of people in need of organs in the UK, but we must also take reasonable steps towards increasing the number of potential donors. The possibility of sparing relatives the financial burden of a funeral might encourage more people to register as donors.
"Paying for the funerals of organ donors would be ethically justified - no harm can come to the donor, and it would be a form of recognition from society. We think a pilot scheme to test the public response to the idea is worth trying, alongside other schemes."
The report states that altruism should continue to be central to organ donation but this should not exclude the possibility of allowing some form of payment in some circumstances. The report proposes an 'Intervention Ladder' to help policy makers consider the ethical acceptability of various ways of encouraging people to donate.
Responding to the report, Chairman of the BMA’s Medical Ethics Committee, Dr Tony Calland, said: "The Nuffield Council has put forward an interesting idea to increase donor rates and the BMA will consider it carefully. While the Association has generally opposed incentives for organ donation, we have not specifically considered the offer to pay for the funeral expenses for individuals who donate their organs.
"Every year people die because a donor cannot be found to allow their transplant to go ahead. Despite the progress that the Organ Donation Taskforce is making towards its target to increase donor rates by 50% by 2013, the BMA believes that more needs to be done. Therefore it is encouraging that organisations like the Nuffield Council are looking at different ways to increase donor rates.
"The BMA still believes that one of the best ways to increase organ donation is to move to an opt-out system with safeguards and we will continue to lobby for this."