Tom Watson: A simple change that would save so many lives

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The Independent Online

By the end of this week, around five people on the waiting list for an organ transplant will have died unnecessarily, and more than 200 lives will be lost this year because of a shortage of donor organs.

By the end of this week, around five people on the waiting list for an organ transplant will have died unnecessarily, and more than 200 lives will be lost this year because of a shortage of donor organs.

There is a desperate need for more donors and the situation is getting worse. The gap between the number of organs available and the number of people needing an organ transplant is widening. There are some 7,000 people on the transplant waiting list, and the queue is growing by the day.

The sad truth is that one in 10 of those will die and many others will have lost their lives before they even get on to the waiting list.

While studies have repeatedly shown that up to three-quarters of the population would be willing to donate their organs after death, only 15 per cent of the population have actually signed up to the NHS Organ Donor Register.

That's why I will be proposing a Ten Minute Rule Bill in the House of Commons this week to change the UK's law on organ donation to a system of "soft presumed consent".

This means that, instead of opting in to organ donation, individuals would have to opt out and everyone would be a potential donor unless they registered their objections otherwise.

A central computerised register of objectors would be established that doctors would have to consult before donation could go ahead.

Under the system, I am proposing there a number of additional safeguards. The deceased's close relatives would still be consulted in every single case and they would have the ultimate veto over donation. And the change would not apply to children under 16, where explicit consent would still be sought in all cases.

While there is a cautious response in Britain, over a dozen countries in Europe use some form of opt-out system, and have far higher donation rates than we have.

The system used in Belgium provides a good model. Belgium established a register of non-donors in 1987 and citizens can express their objection to organ donation at the town hall.

By the end of 1995, 1.75 per cent of the Belgian population had registered their objections to donation. It is mandatory that the register be checked before any organs are removed, and, in practice, relatives are still consulted.

There is well-documented and convincing evidence that when Belgium changed from contracting in to contracting out, there was an increase in organ supply.

The system works on a regional basis. So in Antwerp they kept the opt-in system but had a big public education campaign. But in Leuven they adopted the new law. Over a three-year period the rate of donation in Antwerp stayed the same, whereas in Leuven, it rose from 15 to 40 donors per year.

Alan Milburn, the Secretary of State for Health, wants to see the number of people on the organ register double by 2010. This is a laudable aim, but it cannot be achieved by merely promoting the existing scheme.

There is, of course, a need to promote the NHS Organ Donor Register more effectively and make it easier for people to sign up. Alongside this, however, new legislation and a change in attitudes is urgently required.

With the support of hundreds of MPs, the British Medical Association, many individual doctors, surgeons and patients' groups, I hope that my Bill can kick-start the public debate we so urgently need on our outdated organ donor laws.

Experts suggest that if the United Kingdom were to adopt an opt-out system, the rate of organ donation would rise by at least 20 per cent, so by taking this brave step towards a system of soft presumed consent literally hundreds of lives could be saved every year.

watsont@parliament.co.uk

The author is the Labour MP for West Bromwich East

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