Organ donation and euthanasia in Australia

With the recent legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide in all states in Australia, a new ethical frontier has opened up –  the issue of organ donation in the context of euthanasia and assisted suicide. 

An article published in the Medical Journal of Australia argues that organ donation should be allowed after euthanasia, but with “clear legislation” and guidelines. 

It concludes that there do not appear to be any legal prohibitions against organ donation after euthanasia and assisted suicide, and therefore recommend that the practice be allowed in Australia, with the development of “national best practice guidelines” and close monitoring after implementation, along with record keeping and recording.

This proposal however raises critical questions about the ethics of organ donation under these circumstances.

Professor Margaret Somerville, in her article "Does it matter how we die? Ethical Issues Raised by Combining Euthanasia and Organ Transplantation," presents three main objections to the practice:

Violation of the Dead Donor Rule: Euthanasia and organ transplants violate the “Dead Donor Rule'' which forbids the removal of vital organs until after death. 

Euthanasia by donation involves removing organs before death, which, according to Professor Somerville, could be considered culpable homicide or murder. 

The dead-donor rule was established to ensure that the human being is dead, not just the person, before vital organs are harvested for transplantation.

Impacts on Human Dignity: Professor Somerville raises concerns about how euthanasia by organ donation may overtly and directly offend human dignity. 

Respect for dignity requires treating individuals as ends in themselves, not just as a means to an end. 

She questions whether euthanasia by organ donation reduces the person to a mere instrument for the benefit of others, undermining the ethical principle of respecting human life and dignity.

Conflicts of Interests for Healthcare Professionals: Health care professionals have conflicting duties to both organ donors and organ recipients, leading to ethical dilemmas and potential compromises in patient care. 

This raises questions about the ethics of involving healthcare professionals in such procedures and the need for safeguards to protect vulnerable patients.

While proponents of the practice argue for strict separation between euthanasia and organ donation to maintain ethical integrity, there is a legitimate concern that this separation may eventually be perceived as an obstacle for terminally ill patients. 

As has been the case with all other so-called safeguards regarding euthanasia, the trajectory is predictable: first pass the laws, and then later claim that terminally ill people are being disadvantaged by these ‘obstacles’. 

It is certain that similar tactics will be used by euthanasia proponents if this practice is allowed in Australia.