Brown won't rule out "presumed consent" for donors

LONDON (Reuters) - Prime Minister Gordon Brown said on Monday he would not rule out bringing in a “presumed consent” scheme for organ donation, even though it was rejected by a team of experts set up by the government to look at the issue.

Surgeons extract the liver and kidneys of a brain-dead woman for organ transplant donation at the Unfallkrankenhaus Berlin (UKB) hospital in Berlin January 12, 2008. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch

The Organ Donation Taskforce had earlier said that evidence from across the world indicated that such a scheme, which would effectively make everyone a potential donor unless they choose to opt out, would not improve donation rates.

Elizabeth Buggins, the Taskforce chairman, added a presumed consent scheme would erode trust in doctors and divert attention away from effective measures. The “concept of gift,” she said, was very important to recipient and donor families.

But Brown told reporters: “While they are not recommending the introduction of a presumed consent system as I have done, I am not ruling out a further change in the law.

“The proposal is that we double the number of volunteers to 50 percent. If we cannot get there quickly then we will return to the proposal that I have put forward which is that you have a presumed consent system.”

More than 9,000 people need an organ transplant in Britain according to figures from the British Medical Association and hundreds die each year waiting for a suitable donor.

Britain has one of the lowest rates of organ donation, at just 13 per million of population compared with 35 per million in Spain where a “presumed consent” system operates.

“But the person who made that happen in Spain says presumed consent is irrelevant,” Buggins told BBC radio.

Instead, increasing the number of donor coordinators to support families at the time of bereavement, raising the number of people able to retrieve organs and a major publicity campaign would be far more effective, she said.

Buggins added they needed to dispel myths about donation.

“There’s lots of fear out there that organs are taken from patients before they’re dead. That’s absolutely not true.”

Doctors’ leaders, who argue the current system is unable to meet increasing demands, said they were disappointed by the decision.

“The BMA firmly believes that presumed consent, combined with improvements to the transplantation infrastructure, is the way forward,” said Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA’s Head of Science and Ethics.

“We are, however, pleased to see that this option has not been completely dismissed and that the issue is to be reviewed again in five years’ time.”

Dr Peter Rowe, a consultant nephrologist, said he thought the consent rate for donation might actually be decreasing.

However, John Forsythe, chairman of the Scottish Transplant Group and former President of the British Transplantation Society, said he backed the Taskforce’s findings.

“The recommendations suggest alterations which are much less ‘headline grabbing’ and less glamorous,” he said.

“However they represent, in my view, the ‘hard miles’ of change which will ultimately improve the numbers of organs available for transplantation and help the many thousands of patients who are on the waiting list at present.”

Additional reporting by Peter Griffiths; Editing by Steve Addison