September 22, 2014

Commentary | March 28, 2011
Prisoners should be able to donate organs
Denying this right oversteps boundaries of punishment and denies treatment to thousands
Written by | Visual by Edna Chan

Christian Longo, who has been on death row in Oregon since 2003, has recently re-emerged in the media after writing a New York Times op-ed about his desire to donate his organs when he is put to death. Longo started an organization called Gifts of Anatomical Value from Everyone (GAVE) to advocate for the rights of prisoners to donate their organs, and which seeks to answer the question, “Why not?”

My curiosity stems from that that very question: why is it that, after all that prisoners have given up through their loss of agency and bodily sovereignty in the federal prison system, they cannot donate their organs when they die, whether by lethal injection or of natural causes. Furthermore, why does it matter where an organ comes from, or from whom, so long as it is healthy? Whether you agree with capital punishment or not (which I don’t) – and despite the fact that Canada outlawed the use of the death penalty in 1962 – this is a human question, one with greater implications for how we view the already limited rights of prisoners in corrections systems.

A primary concern in this whole debate is the effect the lethal injection drug cocktail (used in 34 of the 36 states that have not outlawed capital punishment) has on the body. The three drugs, “Sodium Pentothal (induces sleep), Pancuronium Bromide (stops breathing), Potassium Chloride (stops heart)” – sourced from the Oregon Department of Corrections – may cause lasting damage to heart tissue and the tissue of other organs that would render them useless for donation. Two states – Ohio and Washington – currently use just the first drug in a higher dosage, and have found that it achieves the same effect while doing less damage.

Barring that apparently easy-to-overcome obstacle, and assuming capital punishment is not going to be universally banned any time soon, the question remains: why can’t a prisoner choose to donate their organs when they are executed? Accusations that Longo and his fellow inmates are seeking forgiveness for their crimes, or that this is merely a publicity stunt to push them back into the public eye have been thrown around as a result of his editorial. First, regardless of either of those points, these individuals are not going to be taken off death row. They are prisoners for life, with no possibility of parole. Second, who are we to judge their motivations? Why do people donate kidneys to estranged family members? Why do we sign up to be organ donors in the first place? We do not ask these questions. No – our concern about their motives is prompted, at its core, by our disgust with these people who have committed ‘unpardonable’ crimes. This disgust motivates us to enforce the deprivation of the rights of prisoners on death row as retribution for their crimes.

You can speculate all you want about Longo’s motivations, but the pure and simple fact is that neither we nor the prison system really have any right to tell him or anyone else sitting on death row what they can or cannot do with their bodies once they die. One, it should ultimately be the choice of them and their families. Two, when there are over 4,000 Canadians and 100,000 Americans on waiting lists for organ transplants, it is extremely backward to refuse healthy, viable, and willfully-given organs on such vacuous and irrational terms.

Organs are most often meant to be given anonymously. As such, there is no need to know the identity of the person who gave their heart, or kidney, or lung, so long as they are a healthy match for the recipient. This moral desire to know where an organ came from is based on an archaic belief that our organs contain some sort of code that comes from the person who donated this part of their body. Ultimately, such arguments are used to refuse organs from people who are, for example, “criminals,” people of a different race, people who have experienced trauma – the list goes on. Even common popular culture tropes exist surrounding this conception of organ donation. David Duchovny stars in a film about a woman who gets his wife’s heart when she dies. They somehow meet and fall in love because it’s “really her inside.” We’re constantly told that these pieces of tissue, which are really just muscle and blood and cells, have some sort of magical, soulful property through which we can “live on” in someone else.

None of these arguments satisfy me. Each person has a natural right to his or her own body that does not, and should not, be violated, even after death. Prisoners are already disenfranchised and deprived of many civil liberties as part and parcel of their punishment – how many more rights do we wish to deprive them of? Motivations or irrational fears of “impurity” should not be concerns – period – in the decision to allow prisoners on death row to donate their organs when they die.  Thousands of people across North America could benefit from the change in policy, and it is unacceptable to continue to deny this fact.

Courtney Graham is a U3 Political Science and IDS (Joint Honours) student, and The Daily’s Commentary editor. The views expressed here are her own. She can be reached at courtney.graham@mail.mcgill.ca.

 

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