The British Medical Association is considering a big change in policy after its ethics committee decided to support a system of "presumed consent". That approach would allow doctors to remove the organs of patients who died in hospital unless they had chosen to "opt out". At present, individuals must "opt in" by putting their names on the National Donor Register or signing a donor card.
Michael Wilkes, chairman of the BMA ethics committee, said evidence from other European countries suggested there would be a "significant increase" in the number of organs available for transplant if the United Kingdom adopted a system of presumed consent. In Belgium, individuals are deemed to have given consent for organ donation unless they "opt out" when they renew their driving licence.
If doctors vote in favour of the move at the BMA's annual meeting in July, it will put pressure on the Government to consider a change in the law.
Dr Wilkes said that with the demand for heart, lung and liver transplants outstripping the availability of organs, patients were dying while waiting for an operation.
He added: "It would be wrong to assume... that a change in the law to presumed consent would entirely close the gap between the organs needed and those available, but we think it would improve the situation to some degree."
The only other options were buying organs from other countries or using organs from animals, mainly pigs, he said.
Under existing legislation organs can be removed only with the prior consent of the patient, or with the approval of the family after death. Doctors generally approach relatives even if the deceased has signed a donor card, and in about one-third of cases relatives refuse permission.
Dr Wilkes said: "There are situations when relatives overrule the expressed views of the patient, and we think that is unacceptable. There is an argument that, at a very difficult time for relatives, it is better that the decision has been taken out of their hands. Many relatives, after the initial trauma, are grateful that at least something has been done to save someone else."
A spokeswoman for the Department of Health said: "At the moment what we want is to encourage more people to opt in, but we will be looking very carefully at what the BMA is saying."
The BMA initiative was welcomed by Evan Harris, Liberal Democrat MP for Oxford West and Abingdon, who introduced a private member's Bill in the last session of Parliament, aiming to increase the availability of organs. "I am delighted that, after initially opposing my proposals, the BMA ethics committee is now supporting a system of presumed consent," he said.
"There is a silent tragedy of hundreds, if not thousands, of people dying each year while waiting for a transplant, while healthy organs are discarded."Reuse content