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Considering Death Row for Organ Donation

Recovering organs from willing convicted murderers may seem like a reasonable method to reduce the organ waiting list, but the proposal is fraught with challenges that make it unlikely to ever be an option.

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Before Gov. John Kitzhaber of Oregon established a moratorium on his state’s death penalty last year, Christian Longo, a death row inmate, started a campaign to allow the condemned to donate their organs.

Longo argued that a new execution protocol that many states — including Texas — have adopted leaves inmates’ organs viable for transplantation.

“While I can potentially help in saving one life with a kidney donation now, one preplanned execution can additionally save from 6 to 10 more lives,” Longo wrote in a plea that Oregon officials denied.

No state allows death row inmates to donate their organs. Although Texas recently abandoned a three-drug cocktail in favor of a single-drug method for execution, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice said it did not intend to change its policy. There are 11,000 Texans on the organ transplant waiting list.

Criminal justice and medical experts say that the idea of recovering organs from willing convicted murderers is fraught with moral, ethical and medical challenges that make it unlikely to ever be an option.

“It’s complicated in ways that are very messy and very fuzzy,” said Richard C. Dieter, executive director of the nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center.

The Criminal Justice Department allows offenders in the general prison population to donate organs, such as kidneys, while they are alive in certain cases and after death if they complete a donor form.

The prospect of death row organ donation, though, prompts several questions, said Dr. David Orentlicher, a co-director of the Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University's Robert H. McKinney School of Law. Is an inmate giving free and informed consent, or is he hoping to win favorable treatment? Would a donation affect jurors in murder cases who are weighing the death penalty versus life sentences? Or prosecutors deciding whether to seek the death penalty? Or governors deciding whether to grant clemency?

There is also the possibility that allowing death row organ donation could lead jurors to issue more death sentences, Orentlicher said.

For prospective recipients, there are emotional and mental considerations, he added.

“People might say, ‘Gosh, I’m walking around with the organ of a murderer,’” he said. “It may be irrational, but I suspect that’s lurking there.”

The condemned have a high risk of carrying diseases like hepatitis and HIV And conditions in the death chamber are not conducive to organ recovery, said Mike Rosson, regional director of the Texas Organ Sharing Alliance. To keep organs viable, they must have oxygen after the brain dies, which means the donor must be on a ventilator, and surgery must be done quickly.

“You don’t have the facility for recovery, and you have transplant surgeons whose oath is to do no harm,” Rosson said. “The situation is just ethically challenging.”

Even if all the moral, ethical and medical questions could be adequately addressed, he said, the yield of usable organs from death row inmates is likely to be small.

“I think there are avenues other than prisoners that the effort expended toward trying to increase donation would be better spent,” Rosson said.

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