A Massachusetts bill could allow prisoners to exchange their organs for freedom

Doctors regularly ask people who want to donate organs about their health, health status and ability to take care of themselves, and whether they smoke or use recreational drugs. These factors not only affect whether their organs are suitable for donation, but also how well they recover from the procedure.

“I worry that someone in custody might not feel comfortable giving me a full, transparent history,” Reese said. “It’s hard to judge someone’s lifestyle when they’re incarcerated and they can’t really make decisions freely.”

There are other problems with the bill. Its clear goal is to increase live organ donations from people in prison. We know well that these people are a vulnerable group, for example more likely to have been born into poverty or suffer from childhood abuse. We also know that ethnic minorities and race make up the majority of the prisoner population. Just over 30% of American prisoners are Hispanicfor example, and 38% are black.

“It can be considered… like organ harvesting from Black [people] to give to others,” Bell said. “There may be a question about mining.”

State Representative Carlos González, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, sent me a statement arguing that “expanding the pool of potential donors is an effective way to increase the likelihood of family members Black and Latino family and friends receive life-saving treatment.”

It is true that people from racial and ethnic minorities have even more difficulty obtaining the organs they need. For example, in 2020, the number of transplants performed on whites equals 47.6% of the number of pending cases. This number is only 27.7% for Blacks. But there are other ways to inform minority communities about organ donation and encourage informed decisions about it. And they shouldn’t be involved in the organ trade to be free.

This brings us back to the first point. How much are our organs worth, and how is that decision made? Is a kidney worth a year of freedom? Bone marrow has a lower value? “How do they decide to calculate here?” Bell wondered. “Is that really a fair exchange?”

Thankfully, even if the bill passes, that doesn’t mean such deals will take place. Each organ donation must be approved by a medical and ethical team, consisting of a person whose sole function is to advocate for the donor. It’s unlikely everyone will feel comfortable with this type of exchange, Reese says. I think that’s probably for the best.

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