Clearing Path for Gift of Life; as Organ Transplants Become Ever More Common, MP Tom Watson Explains Why He Has Presented a Bill to Introduce Presumed Consent for Donations

Article excerpt

Byline: Tom Watson MP

Yesterday I finally had the chance to present my Bill on presumed consent with safeguards to the House of Commons and was delighted to see it passed to its 'second reading' stage.

Although it has little chance of becoming law without the Government's support, it has at least put the issue on the political agenda.

I've spent the last week taking part in countless phone-ins and interviews on radio and television programmes. Newspapers have devoted hundreds of column inches to discussion of the Bill. A healthy public debate has, I hope, begun.

Nobody can avoid the stark facts. The gap between the number of people needing an organ transplant and the number of organs available is widening - 7,000 people are waiting for an organ, the list is growing by the day and one in 10 of those waiting for a heart or lung transplant can expect to die whilst in the queue.

And while studies have repeatedly shown that up to three-quarters of the population would be willing to donate their organs after death, only 15 per cent of the population have actually signed up to the NHS Organ Donor Register. Here in the West Midlands, it is just 12 per cent - the lowest of any region in the country.

I believe that a system of 'soft' presumed consent is desperately needed to bridge this gap and increase the number of organ transplants.

Instead of opting into organ donation by signing the donor register and carrying a card, individuals would have to register their objection to donation.

A central computerised register of objectors would be established and would have to be consulted by doctors before transplant could go ahead.

Under the system proposed in my Bill, there would be a number of additional safeguards.

The deceased's close relatives would still be consulted in every single case and they would have the ultimate veto over donation.

And the change would not apply to children under the age of 16, where explicit consent would still be sought in all cases.

Opponents of presumed consent argue that it would do little to increase the number of organs available for transplant, but medical experts have suggested that changing to an opt-out system could increase the rate of organ donation by at least 20 per cent.

This is backed by evidence from the introduction of a presumed consent system in Belgium in 1987.

Two different regions went their separateways. In Antwerp they kept the opt-in system but had a big public education campaign. In Leuven they adopted the new law.

Over a three-year period the rate of donation in Antwerp stayed the same, whereas in Leuven it rose from 15 to 40 donors per year. A dozen other countries on the continent use some form of opt-out system.

Not surprisingly they have far higher donation rates than the UK, which lags behind virtually every other European country.

Health Secretary Alan Milburn says his Department is reviewing the organ donation system. As transplants have become the norm, public opinion has shifted. But I fear that some of our politicians are trailing behind.

Readers of The Birmingham Post ought to take this opportunity to write to Mr Milburn, as well as to their own MP, to express their views on 'soft' presumed consent and how we can modernise the donor system.

The Health Secretary has also announced that he wants to see the number of people on the organ register double by 2010. This is a laudable aim.

We need to make it easier for people to join the NHS Organ Donor Register, whether that is by signing up individuals when they apply for a supermarket loyalty or credit card, or when they have to fill in their electoral roll form. …