Wales may adopt new organ donation laws

New legislation in Wales proposes the modification of current organ donation rules. It could mean that relatives would not be able to prevent a dead person's organs being used in transplants if they had not opted out before they died. If the proposals are passed then Wales will be the first in the UK to go forward with the system.

According to Health Minister Lesley Griffiths she did not see a system where doctors took organs without taking into account families' wishes. The proposed law, which is planned to be up and running by 2015, would mean people had to opt out of organ donation rather than opting into the system by joining the donation register. The proposals are slated to be unveiled on Tuesday morning at University Hospital of Wales's transplant unit by First Minister Carwyn Jones.

Ms Griffiths said the Welsh government thought the new laws would increase the number of available organs. “When people die, donation of their organs and tissues is often possible but currently does not happen - not because they did not wish to donate but because they never got round to joining the organ donor register…Repeated surveys show that the overwhelming majority of people in the UK and Wales believe in organ donation, but only one in three people in Wales have joined the organ donor register. Last year 67% of donors were not on the organ donor register. Therefore we believe creating an environment in which donation is the norm will enable more organs to be available.”

First Minister Carwyn Jones labelled the release a “momentous” day for Wales. The paper will now be subject to a three-month consultation period running until the end of January next year. 

Unveiling the white paper, Mr Jones said, “Today is an important day for so many people and an important day for Wales but in particular for all those people waiting for organ transplants. We know one person dies every week because organs aren’t available. Today’s the day we say in Wales we want to be sure more and more people have a chance of life – a life that otherwise would be far more difficult for them.” 

Currently 300 people in Wales are waiting for an organ transplant, with one person dying each week. The proposed opt-out system will apply to all residents in Wales over the age of 18 although it will only apply to those who have lived in Wales a certain length of time, which is yet to be clarified. 

Mr Jones said he hoped the Government would have a “human system” if it got the chance to legislate. “If you ask most people they are happy for organs to be donated but comparatively few people take the step of saying: ‘Yes I will take the card or register for organ donation’,” he said. “We want to move to a system where people opt-out and we want it to be a human system as well and make sure people can opt-out and there’s a procedure for doing that…We know it works well in other countries and donation rates there are far, far higher there than Wales and the rest of the UK. Today is a momentous day. I look forward to taking forward the process of bringing organ donation bill in front of the Assembly.” 

Health Minister Lesley Griffiths said, “The publication of this white paper is, of course, only one stage in a journey and we hope the Welsh public will help us to get this right before the closure of the consultation on January 31, 2012.”  Legislation could be in place by 2013 and a soft opt-out system could come into effect in 2015.

Conservative estimates say there would be around 15 more donors each year if the proposed system was in place now – all donating two or three organs which would provide 40 to 50 organs for donation.

The British Heart Foundation called for the UK's other governments to follow Wales' lead, saying an opt-out system would prove to be the difference between life and death for many families. “Wales has taken a substantial and significant step towards implementing a proven system that will see more heart patients receive the organs they need to stay alive,” said Maura Gillespie, the foundation's policy and advocacy manager. “An opt-out system would better reflect the wishes of the majority of people, and fill the void between good intention and action.”

Roy J Thomas, chairman of Kidney Wales Foundation, described the government's plan as a “progressive move by Wales”. “The UK has one of the lowest donor rates in Europe,” he said. “Wales will take the lead and show that we must presume to have conversations on this important issue.”

Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee, said it fully supported the move. “The fact is that every year people die whilst waiting for organs, and evidence from other countries has shown that an opt-out system can address the shortage of organ donors and can save lives. We hope that a move to a soft opt-out system would change cultural expectations in society, and prompt more discussion within families about organ donation,” he said.

But Glyn Davies, Conservative MP for Montgomeryshire, said he would be seeking time in Westminster to debate the issue.

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.

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