The Welsh Assembly Government wants to allow doctors to harvest organs from the dead without their consent.
Supporters say it will result in more life-saving organ transplants, but critics say it treats human bodies like state property and may encourage a slippery definition of death.
The Government in Cardiff wants what it calls a ‘soft’ system of presumed consent, where health professionals will still consult with families on whether they wish their relative to donate an organ after death.
If it went ahead, it would be the first scheme of its kind anywhere in the UK.
In 2008 the Organ Donation Taskforce rejected implementing a presumed consent system in the UK until improvements were made to the current organ donation system to increase donors.
A number of doctors are concerned that ‘presumed consent’ systems encourage a slack definition of death.
Doctors are keen to take organs from a body with a beating heart, because the removal of the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas and kidneys must be done before they begin to deteriorate due to cessation of blood circulation.
Agreement from two doctors that a patient is ‘brain-dead’, though their heart continues to beat, is required before organs can be removed.
Some ‘brain-dead’ organ donors are given a general anaesthetic before removing their organs to suppress the body reacting to the physical distress of being cut into.
Secular ethicist Professor Peter Singer of Princeton University has said of these patients: “Defining such people as dead was a convenient way around the problems of making their organs available for transplantation, and withdrawing treatment from them.”
Medical ethicist, Michael Potts, has said: “Since the patient is not truly dead until his or her organs are removed, it is the process of organ donation itself that causes the donor’s death.”
Dr Margaret Cook, a former consultant haematologist at St John’s Hospital, West Lothian, has said: “How can we be sure, if this proposal became law, that there would not be undue pressure to be less stringent on declaring a potential donor brain-dead?”
There have been a number of stories of patients, thought to be dead, waking before transplant surgeons could harvest their organs.
Zach Dunlap says he remembers hearing doctors pronouncing him dead on 19 November 2007 at a hospital in Texas. But then he started showing signs of life by moving his hand and foot.
He then reacted to a pocket knife scraped across his foot and pressure being applied under his fingernail. After 48 days recovering in hospital he was allowed home.
Signs of life
French newspaper Le Monde ran an article in 2008 about a 45-year-old Parisian who began to show signs of life just as transplant surgeons were about to harvest his organs after failing to resuscitate him.
Doctors continued to massage his heart for an hour and a half before surgeons arrived to remove his organs for donation.
As the surgeons began to operate, the man began to breathe and reacted to a pain test. A report on the incident says: “After a few weeks chequered with serious complications, the patient is now walking and talking.”