In life, there exist things author Salman Rushdie would describe as “Processes Too Complicated To Explain (P2C2E).”
Organ transplantation is one of those mysterious processes. Besides being a medically advanced field that requires several years of study, it is also a field that has moral and philosophical implications.
Human beings are not simply puzzles with interchangeable pieces. There is something profound and mystical about taking an organ from a dead person and using it to restore life in a fellow human being. It is about having the ability to feel connectedness and hope during a situation full of despair.
It is when the human connection is lost in organ transplantation that we as a species lose our moral compass.
Case in point: 2010’s Inhale starring Dermot Mulroney and Diane Kruger. Paul and Diane are living a parent’s worst nightmare. Their daughter Chloe is terminally ill and needs a lung transplant to survive. When a match for Chloe is found but the lungs are directed to someone sicker than she is, Chloe’s doctor tells Paul and Diane that people with money have more options for organs than just the standard Universal Organ Sharing (UOS) transplant waiting list in America.
Further investigation on Paul’s part reveals that yes, people with money can get organs in Mexico for a price. Not only is there a hefty monetary fee, the cost is also human as street children who are blood and tissue matches are killed for their organs to fill the demand from wealthy Americans.
In the end (spoiler alert), Paul and Diane are divided as Diane believes her daughter’s life is worth more than some street kid’s life in Mexico whereas Paul believes the two lives are equal. Chloe dies waiting for lungs, and Paul and Diane’s marriage is clearly over as a result.
Once upon a time, all organ donations came from deceased donors. Even though this is no longer the case it does not mean people should be killed to donate their organs to people who can afford it. Paul takes the moral high ground and his daughter dies, because he recognises that the street kid in Mexico has just as much right to live as his daughter.
Living organ donation is not as clear cut and is getting more attention from the media at large.
Season eleven of Degrassi: The Next Generation featured their first transplant storyline. Overachiever Holly J. Sinclair feels sick for a while but dismisses it as a cold that will not quit. Imagine her surprise when her cold turns out to be full-blown kidney failure. Holly J. begins dialysis immediately, still managing to keep up with her school schedule and homework. Her kidney failure progresses, and the doctors tell her the only option is a kidney transplant.
Holly J.’s family gets tested for kidney donation but no one is a match because (Surprise!) it turns out Holly J. was adopted and her adoptive parents never told her. So Holly J. tracks down her birth mom who is a match and will donate her kidney, if Holly J. will pay her $20,000.
Just so we’re clear, Degrassi: The Next Generation is a Canadian show and the purchase of organs is illegal in Canada. Holly J. is appalled and does not have the money but her rich friend Fiona Coyne does and contrives a way to get the $20,000 to Holly J.’s birth mom in a ‘legal’ (I use that term very loosely) fashion. Holly J. gets her kidney in a laughable episode where she misses her high school prom and then everything is peachy.
In a Harry’s Law episode entitled “New Kidney on the Block,” Jimmy Cormack comes to lawyer Harriet Korn with a special request: he wants her to help him change the law against being able to purchase organs. Jimmy has a donor all lined up, but the donor is out of work and is looking for money to fund his kids’ college education.
The judge sympathizes with Jimmy’s plight – he’s 21 years-old and he’s going to die from acute kidney failure – but ultimately she rules against changing the law. The implications are too wide-spread. Should rich people be able to buy their way into new organs? What will that mean for people who are at an economic disadvantage?
The most recent addition is “Toronto man who bought kidney abroad is key witness in transplant sale trial in Kosovo,” a newspaper article featured in The Toronto Star on January 22, 2012. Raul Fain bought his kidney in an act of transplant tourism overseas for $127,000. Fain declined to be interviewed for the article.
As a child, I grew up knowing that my life was the result of another child’s death. It took me a long time to figure out that even though I lived and he died, I did not cause his death or even wish for it.
All I could do was marvel in awe at the wondrous gift I had been given. A family, overcome with grief at the sudden, premature death of their little boy saw past their own sorrow to the sorrow of my family. They recognised that though their own child was lost, his death could be used to spare other families from losing their children as well.
There was no monetary compensation; they did not have to agree to organ donation. But their decision to help some family they did not even know represents the best qualities of humanity: our ability to empathize and our generosity.
Their decision gave me the tremendous gift of a childhood and allowed me to grow into adulthood. And throughout all those years I have carried their son with me in a way I will never fully understand.
I do not know anything about the donor of my heart – not his or her age or sex, whether he or she had any children of his or her own – but I also carry him or her with me. I have the same respect and awe for him or her that I do for the donor of my liver and his family.
Would being the recipient of a living organ donation make the connection different? I cannot answer that question based on personal experience. Maybe while it is morally wrong to kill people for organ harvesting, it is right to compensate people who are willing to be living donors.
But I worry that something profound is lost when money enters into the equation. Suddenly the incredible gift of life is not a gift anymore, it is a commodity that will be more easily aquireable by the wealthy.
I believe that living or dead, human beings have a responsibility toward promoting each other’s well-being. Organ donation is an excellent example of this and should be practiced with altruism and empathy.
We live in a time when immediacy and health are highly valued. In such an environment it is difficult to argue in favour of government-approved transplant waiting lists that have the potential to stretch out for years if other options are available.
As a species, our growing scientific knowledge has led us to encounter many P2C2E. I hope that we also never lose our willingness to look beyond the surface and truly consider the moral consequences of those processes.