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07/02/2013

Wales passes law introducing opt-out organ donation program

Welsh politicians have come up with a way to boost their country's organ donation program. New legislation in Wales is set to make every adult a donor, unless they expressly opt out of the program.

The new law, as reported by the BBC and the London Telegraph, will mean modest but important change. The broadcaster reports an opt-out system will generate an additional 15 donors per year, or 45 extra organs.

The BBC reports at least 33 people in Wales, population 3 million, died over the past year because doctors couldn't find them an organ in time. There are 250 people on a waiting list for organs.

The new program, approved Tuesday by the Welsh Assembly, will start in 2015 and will apply to any adult who has been a resident of Wales for 12 months before their death. The program won't apply to anyone under 18 nor people without the mental capacity to make a decision on whether to be an organ donor.

Wales joins other countries such as Spain, Portugal, and Belgium with opt-out organ donor programs.

In Canada, Richard Wedge, acting CEO of Health P.E.I., told CBC in September that his province may be the first in Canada to introduce an opt-out program, noting that in 2011, Prince Edward Island recorded just four organ donors.

The National Post reported that 2010, 247 Canadians died while waiting for an organ transplant, while another 4,500 remained on a waiting list. The Star's Barbara Turnbull reported in May thatover the previou s12 months, 245,000 Ontario residents registered to be donors on the province's database, bringing the overall rate up 1 per cent to 23 per cent.

An April analysis of government data by Star journalists Megan Ogilvie and Patrick Cain found that a neighbourhood near North Bay has Ontario's highest rate of people who have signed up to be organ donors at 43 per cent.

The analysis found cultural differences can play a role in the decision making, an angle I explored in 2009 in India. The previous year, the country of 1.1 billion recorded just 80 organ donors.

Mark Drakeford, Wales' health minister, said the new law would save lives while insisting people will have the option to opt out.

The Telegraph reports "opponents to the plans said human bodies risk being treated like 'clapped out cars', being stripped for spare parts after death."

Joyce Robins of the campaign group Patient Concern said: “This legislation will result in human bodies being treated like clapped-out cars.

“You strip them of parts for reuse, unless the owner prefers to scrap the whole vehicle. It’s outrageous to pretend that people feel no differently about a human heart from a used car horn.” 

Opinions online were similarly mixed.

"Firstly, my body, living or dead, is not the property of the government," a reader who identified themself as "uberwest" wrote on The Telegraph's Website. "I should be able to say who benefits from any value that my organs may have.

"Secondly, I have absolutely no faith in either the government's or the NHS's ability to ensure that such a system would not be exploited in any of the many ways that such a system could be exploited."

Rick Westhead is a foreign affairs writer at The Star. He was based in India as the Star’s South Asia bureau chief from 2008 until 2011 and reports on international aid and development. Follow him on Twitter @rwesthead

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