Money Should Not Attract Organ Donors In Pennsylvania

16 April 1999

By Stentor Danielson

Underneath the picture on my driver's license are the little green words "organ donor." When the guy at the testing center asked me if I wanted them there, it seemed to me like it ought to be a rhetorical question. But, unfortunately, for some reason, it's not to many people. In light of this, the good state of Pennsylvania has announced a program, effective as early as September, in which the government would offer a $300 contribution toward the funeral of anyone who is a registered organ donor. When I heard this news, I just had to shake my head in disbelief.

The people who have attacked Pennsylvania's new program have done so mostly by declaring that it violates the federal law prohibiting the sale of organs. I'd be the first to admit that a legal argument would be the easiest to take on this subject, since the law establishes the "givens" for the proof. But this program isn't illegal. The intent of the law is to prevent organs from becoming a commercial commodity, to which the rich would consequently have better access. Altruistically-motivated donations, however, can be distributed in a fair and egalitarian way to the most urgent patients. But the money stipulated by the new law in Pennsylvania is not a payment from the recipient to the donor. This is a government-regulated compensation for the family of the donor. Thus, it escapes both the letter and the intent of the anti-organ sale law.

Yet, though I believe this measure is legal, I don't believe that it is wise. I think that offering money to donors' families is a waste of funds that could be put to much better use.

First off, there's the high moral angle. The government shouldn't need to pay people to donate their organs. People should just do it out of the goodness of their hearts, or the lack of evil in their hearts. I can understand how other charitable actions suffer from apathy. Giving money hurts your wallet. Participating in a blood drive takes a chunk of your time and makes some people feel sick afterwards. But all it takes to become an organ donor is to say "yes" to a question that they automatically ask everybody (or, at least in Pennsylvania they do). And if you don't want to do that, you still have to pronounce the same number of syllables to decline, since you'll probably forfeit your license if you just stand there without saying anything. So, barring speech impediments, it is exactly as easy to be an organ donor as it is not to be one.

Why would someone choose to say "no" to having those two little words on their license? I usually take pride in being able to understand the viewpoint of people whom I disagree with but, in this case, I'm stumped. The way I see it, unless you subscribe to the ancient Egyptian religion and intend to be mummified, a dead body is just a wad of flesh, like a steak or a fishstick with clothes instead of breading. The person - the soul that makes the deceased individual what he or she is - is in Heaven, or on its way to reincarnation or, from an atheist's viewpoint, has ceased to exist. The organs are of no use to their owner, and they're just going to rot away eventually anyway, especially in the case of those who are cremated. Yet there are people who truly think that they shouldn't give up their organs, and I have to allow them their beliefs.

This means that anyone who elects not to be an organ donor is doing so because of some sort of conviction that organ donating is wrong. While I can't begin to fathom the kind of mind that would think that way, I think I can safely say that it must be a fairly strong conviction to supersede the possibility of saving someone's life by giving them a body part that you, as a dead person, no longer need. So, $300 is not going to change these people's minds. If there were some sort of extra effort necessary to donate your organs, perhaps it would convince those who are just lazy. But I don't see that laziness can favor either side of the organ donation choice.

I admit that I wouldn't mind an extra $300 for my family when I die. However, knowing that that money would come because I was an organ donor would not sit so well. The point of offering an incentive is to reward those who do what the government wants. But the way I see it, I'm not making any sacrifice. I'm not losing anything, because once I'm dead, my organs are of no value to me. A sacrifice requires giving up something of value.

Furthermore, the presence of a "reward" cheapens the decision to donate. Under the current system, a donor can feel good that he or she is doing something that may save someone else's life, but is getting nothing in return. That sense of satisfaction is killed by the expectation of a reward and (from what I've heard of funerals) a piddling one at that.

If this program goes into effect -- which I expect it will, as it is not vulnerable to the current line of legally-based attack -- I do hope it is successful. Cheapening my own decision to donate is a small price to pay for the lives that would be saved if the offer of $300 does in fact cause more people to make the right choice. But it would be a sad commentary on the state of the American public if a little bit of governmental pocket change is able to change their minds. Hopefully, though, the legislators will see the ineffectiveness of their efforts and quickly scrap the program, and put the money to better use.

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