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Harvest organs from living euthanasia patients, Dutch researchers propose

Pro-euthanasia demonstrators call for France to follow the example of the Netherlands (AP Photo/Remy de la Mauviniere)

Doctors should be given power to kill patients who wish to die from euthanasia by harvesting their organs for transplants while they are still alive, a team of medical researchers in Holland have proposed.

Instead of dying by lethal injection, people requesting euthanasia could be legitimately killed as their organs are stripped from them on the operating table during transplant surgery, they have suggested.

This would allow surgeons to remove healthy and undamaged organs which could then be used to save the lives of other patients, they said in an article in the Journal of Medical Ethics, a publication owned by the British Medical Journal.

Such procedures would allow doctors to take a beating heart from a euthanasia patient, for instance, instead of having to wait until the person has died before the organ is harvested.

At present, it is illegal in Holland and Belgium to cause or hasten death by organ donation but the article suggests that a relaxation of laws in both countries would improve the “quality of the transplanted organs”.

But the argument for so-called “heart-beating organ donation euthanasia” was denounced by anti-euthanasia campaigners in Westminster where a Bill to permit assisted suicide was last autumn overwhelmingly defeated.

Fiona Bruce, the Conservative MP for Congleton, said: “The possibility of euthanasia achieved through live organ donation, such as by removing a patient’s beating heart, as posited in this paper is shocking and chilling.

“The paper confirms the worst fears expressed by Parliament when the House of Commons conclusively voted to stop the legalisation of assisted suicide in this country.

“It is a timely reminder that the legalisation of assisted suicide puts the most vulnerable at severe risk.”

She added: “The authors of the paper themselves confirm that the combination of euthanasia and organ donation could undermine doctors’ motivations and encourage them to look beyond just the wellbeing of their patient.”

“What this paper reveals is yet another way in which vulnerable people – to whom we owe greatest support and protection – would be put under pressure to end their lives prematurely.

“That strikes at the heart of a compassionate society, and confirms that Parliament made the right decision when it decisively rejected proposals to legalise physician-assisted suicide.”

Lord Carlile of Berriew, patron of the Living and Dying Well think tank, said: “I have extreme concerns about the ghoulish nature of the combined euthanasia and organ donation systems available in both the Netherlands and Belgium.

“Both, and in my view especially Belgium, can result in unbearable and irresistible pressure on an individual to die, and on a doctor to encourage death, to increase the supply of available organs for transplantation.”

The JME article was written by a team led by Jan Bollen of the Department of Intensive Care at the Maastricht University Medical Centre.

It stated that organs have been harvested from more than 40 euthanasia patients in Holland, where euthanasia was legalised in 2002, and Belgium, where the practice became law just a year later.

Just one of these cases has been described in scientific literature, but most would inevitably have involved patients suffering from non-cancerous conditions “since malignancy is a contra-indication for organ donation”. In both countries euthanasia is used increasingly on people with depression or non-terminal conditions.

Mr Bollen said that since a euthanasia patient has chosen to die, the “no-touch time” – a period of several minutes which must elapse to ensure that death has occurred – might be skipped in any reforms of the law.

“It is even possible to extend this argument to a ‘heart-beating organ donation euthanasia’ where a patient is sedated, after which his organs are being removed, causing death,” Mr Bollen wrote.

“A patient might be motivated to request euthanasia because this gives him the opportunity to donate organs,” he added.

“As long as all due diligence requirements are fulfilled, it should not be an obstacle if euthanasia and donation are not fully separated.”

The authors acknowledged the unease that the harvesting of organs from euthanasia patients could cause among the public, saying that such a perception must be carefully avoided if the laws are to be successfully changed.

Dutch law on organ donation is similar to that in England and is allowed only when patients give permission for their organs to be removed for transplantation.

Belgium, however, operates a system of “presumed consent”, similar to that in Wales, in which doctors can remove transplant organs from the dead unless the patients had opted out of the process.

The proposal to relax the laws on organ harvesting comes as Belgian legislators consider three Bills that would permit euthanasia on demand.