Leading article: Closing the gap on organs

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The Independent Online

The shortage of organs in this country is critical. Of the 8,000 people who were waiting last year for transplant operations, the lack of available organs meant less than half that number underwent transplant in 2008-9.

The shortage means that each year a large number of people die unnecessarily; are condemned to death in one of the cruellest of ways, in fact, because they know an extension to their lives is not beyond hope and is being denied them solely because no donated organ is available.

What is even more appalling is that there is no lack of people willing to donate their organs. If all the 45 per cent of the population who tell surveys that they would like to donate organs did so, none of the thousands of people now waiting for a transplant would be wondering whether they will live long enough to receive an organ. For that reason we must hope the UK campaign to support organ donation, which starts today, enjoys wide support and has an impact. At the same time, we need to confront the fact that encouraging more people to "opt in" to organ donation may not be enough.

The ethics committee of the Royal College of Physicians has come up with a proposal that would compel adults to decide on organ donation one way or another. When registering for the electoral roll, people would have to select one of three options: yes, no, or leave it for relatives to decide. The Royal College believes in "mandatory choice", having concluded that no other strategy is likely to close the gap between the static number of organs available and the growing number of people needing transplants.

Regrettably, the Government's Taskforce on Organ Donation has dismissed the Royal College's recommendations on the grounds that they smack of undesirable paternalism. In other words, people should also have the choice to simply ignore the issue. The Government says awareness campaigns, like the one starting today, are having results and many more people have already signed the Organ Donor Register.

Awareness campaigns are an excellent idea. But if they do not cut the number of people waiting for transplants in the near future, the idea of mandated choice will have to revisited.