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An eye for an eye.

An Eye for an Eye

Should condemned prisoners pay their debts to society by donating organs for transplantation upon execution? George B. Markle, IV, a surgeon in private practice in New Mexico, broached the question satirically in a recent issue of American Medical News (25 November 1988), but Michigan pathologist Jack Kevorkian is raising it quite seriously. In letters to death row inmates across the country, Kevorkian has asked them to volunteer to donate their organs for transplant upon execution, and in the meanwhile, to sign petitions in a campaign to convince lawmakers to legalize such donations. Kevorkian has addressed his letters to condemned prisoners whose requests for appeal have been denied by the U.S. Supreme Court (American Medical News, 16 December 1988).

Attorneys for many of the inmates contacted are understandably irate, some noting that despite having been denied a hearing by the Supreme Court their clients do have appeals left and it is not certain they will be executed. And many worry that making such donations possible would establish "another vested interest in capital punishment," perhaps prompting judges and juries to impose the death sentence more readily.

Physicians and members of the transplant community are equally disturbed by the medical ethical implications of Dr. Kevorkian's proposal. Although Dr. Kevorkian hasn't made clear precisely how organs would be harvested from the executed, he seems to favor lethal injection as the mode of execution. But lethal injection causes cardiopulmonary cessation, making organs unusable, notes Michael Baker, director of recovery services at the Regional Organ Bank of Illinois. To be used for transplant to needy patients, the organs of condemned criminals would have to be removed under anesthesia prior to formal execution, in effect making physicians executioners--something organ recovery physicians won't countenance. Kevorkian finds this professional reluctance hypocritical when some physicians support transplantation of aborted fetal tissue.

But how do condemned prisoners feel about donating their organs? In an interview with Chicago Lawyer convicted murderer John Wayne Gacy said, "It's silly for a body to go in the ground when its organs can help somebody else." Charles Walker, also condemned to death for murder, looks at it a little differently. He questions whether the public would accept the idea: "Who's going to want to say they've got the heart of a killer....?" (American Medical News, 16 December 1988).

The medical, ethical, and legal questions aside, opponents note that in the end this "modest proposal," as Markle called it, is pointless. There are simply too few condemned prisoners, and fewer still executions, for this source to make up the shortfall in organs for transplantation.

Yet just such proposals have been raised in at least two state legislatures. In the past few years, legislators in both California and Georgia have, unsuccessfully, introduced bills to permit organ donation by those condemned to death (American Medical News, 16 December 1988). And in Hong Kong, the kidneys of criminals executed in Canton in the Peoples Republic of China, where the death penalty is liberally applied, are available for about L7,000. The organs are retrieved without the knowledge or consent of the condemned or their families (IME Bulletin, December 1988).
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Title Annotation:donation of death row inmates' organs
Author:Crigger, Bette-Jane
Publication:The Hastings Center Report
Date:Mar 1, 1989
Previous Article:The wait goes on.
Next Article:Theology and bioethics.

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