Organ donation on death row raises questions


An eleventh-hour request by a death row inmate to donate his organs is raising troubling moral and medical questions among transplant experts and ethicists.

Less than a day before child killer Ronald Phillips was set to die by lethal injection, Republican Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday postponed the execution to look into Phillips’ request.

Phillips, 40, wants to give relatives a kidney before he is put to death, and donate his heart afterward.

The governor said he is open to the possibility of Phillips donating a kidney or other non-vital organs before he is executed. But Kasich appeared to rule out a post-execution donation.

Some medical experts and others warn that execution chemicals could render organs unusable. They are also deeply disturbed by the prospect of death row inmates donating organs, even if can ease shortages so severe that patients die while on the waiting list.

They question whether the condemned can freely give consent, or are desperately hoping to win clemency. They worry that such practices will make judges and juries more likely to hand out death sentences. And they are troubled by the notion of using inmates for spare parts.

Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University said organ donation is incompatible with the goals of punishment.

“It’s unethical because this guy who’s being executed raped and killed a 3-year-old. When you donate your organs, there’s a kind of redemption,” Caplan said. “Punishment and organ donation don’t go well together. I don’t think the kinds of people we’re executing we want to make in any way heroic.”

Yet it is not unheard-of for a death row inmate to become an organ donor. Condemned Delaware inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother in 1995, though his execution was not imminent. In 1996, the Alabama Supreme Court halted David Larry Nelson’s execution so he could donate a kidney to his sick brother. His brother was too ill for surgery and later died.

Requests in other states, including Texas, have been rejected. All involved so-called live donations, never donation of a vital organ like a heart.

Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center, which opposes capital punishment, said the practice raises troubling concerns. “Once you put the person into the death row or execution category, then their life becomes less in the equation of things,” he said. “That’s a slippery slope of one life being used to save another.”

Anne Paschke, a spokeswoman for the United Network for Organ Sharing, said that her organization’s ethics committee in 2007 deemed the practice “morally reprehensible.”

Dr. Brooks Edwards, the director of the Mayo Clinic Transplant Center and a transplant cardiologist, said it will be possible to use some organs after an execution, including the liver and kidney, but not the heart.

Some transplant recipients think such donations could be a good thing.

“I don’t know who my donor is and I really don’t care,” said John Afek, a 57-year-old accountant and financial adviser who underwent a heart transplant nearly two years ago. “How many people die waiting on a list?” Afek said.

If inmates want to donate, he said, “God bless them. We need the organs.”