The Lower House passed a bill Thursday recognizing brain death as legal death, scrapping the age limit for organ transplants and paving the way for transplants for children under 15.
The option, Plan A, the first of four amendments to be voted on, received 263 votes for and 167 against. The remaining three bills — Plans B, C and D — were scrapped.
Plan A recognizes people who are brain dead as legally dead with no exceptions and scraps the age limit for organ donations if family members agree, unless the prospective donor has clearly said no.
Due to the sensitive nature of the subject, lawmakers were asked to vote on one of the four choices on an individual basis and disregard party policies. The Japanese Communist Party abstained, saying deliberations had been insufficient.
The bill will now be handed over to the Upper House, where its prospects are sketchy because all Diet lawmakers are fixated on the timing of the dissolution of the Lower House, which will be followed by a general election that must be held by fall.
The dissolution would inevitably affect the deliberation schedule of the organ transplant bill in the Upper House.
Liberal Democratic Party lawmaker Taro Nakayama, the chief proponent of Plan A, said after the vote that the endorsement of the bill by the Lower House gives hope to families and children in need of transplants.
“I believe today’s decision has shed a shining ray of hope on those across the nation watching the situation on television — especially those with family members who are ill,” he said, adding he hopes lawmakers in the Upper House will follow suit and approve the amendment.
The 12-year-old law currently prohibits people under 15 from donating organs, forcing many children to seek transplants overseas.
The restriction has been criticized for promoting “organ transplant tourism” as well as undermining Japan’s self-sufficiency in providing organs and leaving many patients waiting in limbo.
The World Health Organization was expected in May to officially ask member states to discourage people from seeking overseas transplants, but the plan has been put off while it deals with the swine flu pandemic.
Of the three amendments that were scrapped, Plan B was similar to the current law but would have lowered the age limit to 12.
Plan C stipulated maintaining the current age limit but would have tightened the terms and conditions for brain death.
Plan D would have basically prohibited people under 15 from agreeing to be an organ donor, but it would have allowed harvesting if the parents and a third-party panel acknowledged brain death and agreed to the donation.
Although these amendments were killed in the Lower House, there is a high possibility similar bills will be submitted in the Upper House.
Prime Minister Taro Aso, who said he sided with Plan D, said he believes many lawmakers struggled to resolve the question between saving lives through organ transplants and the definition of death.
“However, I believe it was good that we could at least present a conclusion as a legislature to those who desired organ transplants,” he said.
Brain death is a highly sensitive issue, as many family members refuse to accept it as actual death if their loved ones’ hearts are still functioning.
Tomoko Abe of the Social Democratic Party, the chief proponent of Plan C, said the government owes citizens a more detailed explanation of what brain death really entails to gain a true national consensus on the issue, and added that the decision was reached too quickly.
“Should we really endorse a law that recognizes brain death as actual death before we even ask our people?” she asked.
Michikata Okubo, director of the nonprofit Japan Transplant Recipient Organization, said he couldn’t understand why it took 12 years to amend the law, when thousands of patients waiting for transplants were dying every year.
Developments in organ transplants
June 1997 — Organ Transplant Law is enacted.
October 1997 — The law comes into force.
February-March 1999 — Japan’s first transplants are conducted using organs provided by a female donor declared brain dead.
August 2005 — Two bills to revise the law are submitted to the Diet but are scrapped due to dissolution of the Lower House.
March 2006 — The two bills are again submitted to the Diet.
December 2007 — A third bill is submitted.
2007 and 2008 — A record 13 transplants are conducted for two years in a row.
April 2009 — The ruling bloc and Democratic Party of Japan agree to vote on the revision bills in the current Diet session.
May 15 — A fourth bill is submitted to the Diet.
Thursday — The Lower House passes the so-called Plan A to designate brain death as legal death and scrap donor age limit.