Bishop of Carlisle says more should be done to encourage voluntarily organ donation before moving to an opt-out system

Carlisle141217bOn the 23rd November 2018 the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome spoke in the second reading debate of the Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill. The Bishop supported the intentions behind the Bill, but pressed for more action first to increase voluntary donations, including engaging the BAME community, increasing specialist nurses and supporting potential donors though creation of a transplant pathway.

The Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, the Church of England is wholly committed to both the principle and the practice of organ donation, believing as it does that giving oneself and one’s possessions voluntarily for the well-being of others and without compulsion is a Christian duty and that organ donation is a striking example of that.

Like many other noble Lords, I am personally glad to have my name on the organ donor register. I was closely involved with the so-called fleshandblood churches campaign, which we ran in partnership with the NHS from 2012 onwards and added thousands of potential donors to the list. We therefore have absolutely no wish to be remotely churlish about this Private Member’s Bill which is so very clearly well intentioned, and with whose overall objectives we are in complete agreement. We are most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, for bringing it forward.

However, I cannot let this moment pass without mentioning three caveats which have all been raised elsewhere and by other noble Lords but which bear repeating and need to be borne firmly in mind as the Bill proceeds.

First, “deemed consent” is not some sort of magic wand—as the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, referred to it—that will automatically increase the number of effective donations. More important by some distance, as we have been reminded, is the raising of awareness, the encouragement of conversations about this subject in families and a new willingness to talk about death. This was stated by the Bill’s author as one of its principal aims, but I do not see the Bill achieving that aim in itself. As some have observed, it could have the opposite effect. This would be highly unfortunate since, as we know, for understandable reasons, grieving relatives are often a stumbling block to donation, even when it was manifestly the deceased person’s wish.

My second hesitation is that our present system, which is referred to as a hard opt-in but is really a soft opt-in, reflects a very careful balance between individuals, relatives and the state, with a presumption that the state does not have a right to dictate either to individuals or their families how their bodies should be used. An opt-out system represents, whether it means to or not, a major shift in the state’s relationship with its citizens. The noble Lord, Lord Lansley, touched on this. As the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales observed, an opt-in system emphasises the positive ethos of donation as a free gift with informed consent. Despite the assurance from the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, that the Bill is still very much about giving, this suggests that we need an overwhelming case that numbers of lives saved or enhanced would be significantly increased. That overwhelming case would have to be made before a change of this kind is introduced.

That brings me to my third caveat. There is at present, I suggest, no overwhelming case. The evidence, such as we have, is rather ambivalent. I fully acknowledge the February 2018 BMJ article cited in our Library briefing, which says that Wales has seen more registered donors and fewer family refusals than any other part of the UK since the introduction of the opt-out system in 2015—the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, and the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, referred to the very high consent rate in Wales. However, at the same time, as the same briefing records, the Welsh Government indicate that, as yet, opt-out has had no impact on the number of actual organ donors in Wales. It is three years on: perhaps we do need to wait 10 years, as the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, suggested, because at the moment the evidence is not clear.

I note the comments of the highly regarded Nuffield Council on Bioethics, which is concerned that making a legislative change based on poor evidence risks undermining public trust in the organ donation system. Indeed, as we have been reminded, especially by the noble Lord, Lord Ribeiro, examples from countries such as Spain indicate that improvements to transplant protocols and procedures are more important than a change to the consent system. That is why the Church of England would prefer to build on the current opt-in model to increase the number of organ donors and transplants. However, we accept fully the head of steam, as it were, behind the Bill and will certainly not oppose it. None the less, we ask that in the almost certain event of its successful passage three very important considerations are taken into account.

The first—we have heard a great deal about this already—is that there should be very good communication, not least in schools and in BAME communities, where, as we have heard, the need for donors and transplants is often greatest. We heard some statistics on this from the noble Lord, Lord Patel. The second is that adequate resources should be made available for the implementation of this new system, including specialist nurses for organ donation. That has been mentioned by almost all noble Lords who have spoken. The third is that more effective use should be made of potential donors, in ways highlighted by the transplant pathway. Only then do we believe that the pressing need for more organ donations will be met.


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