Late last month, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders underwent a kidney transplant.
Any time a prominent person undergoes an organ transplant, you can bet it will be news. However, in this case, there was more to the story than a medical procedure involving Toronto’s top cop.
Turns out that Saunders, who was born with only one kidney, got a new one from his wife Stacey, who, remarkably, was a perfect match to be a donor.
It seems fair to conclude that if Saunders had an option other than his wife, he would have gone that way.
The reality is that hundreds of Canadians die every year waiting for organ transplants that never come. At present, nearly 5,000 Canadians linger anxiously on waiting lists in a country with all of the technology and resources to do a transplant, but not enough organs to make it a reality.
The sad fact is that Canada, along with other countries as well, does a pathetic job of marshaling the prior approval of its citizens to donate organs.
This sets up a painful, tragic dichotomy in public policy. Despite the fact that opinion polls show between 70 and 90 per cent of Canadians support organ donation, only 20 per cent of us have registered to be organ donors.
Why? For some, it’s a religious concern about the desecration of human remains. Still others see it as an intrusion by the state in a deeply personal matter. Procrastination probably accounts for many others.
There are solutions. The countries with the highest rates of organ donation have instituted legal regimes which presume that we are all organ donors until we opt out.
It’s a fascinating and elegant solution which creates a much greater pool of potential donors while still giving all conscientious objectors the right to refuse.
Unfortunately, this approach has not been embraced by Canada. Even when lawmakers are given the opportunity to deal with an issue that could save hundreds if not thousands of lives, we balk.
Such was the case recently in Manitoba when a private member’s bill sponsored by MLA Steven Fletcher that would have instituted Canada’s first presumed consent policy for organ donation suffered its own untimely death.
The bill died when it failed to get the support of the Progressive Conservative caucus. With a commanding Tory majority in the legislature, no private member’s bill can move forward without the support of a strong majority of those MLAs. And for a variety of reasons, that support was not to be.
Tory caucus chairman Reg Helwer told reporters that his party would not support the bill and believed that public education was "the proper route to take." Then, Premier Brian Pallister announced that the issue would be studied by an all-party task force.
This laid-back response is completely unacceptable when you consider the gravity of the issue. However, there were complicating factors.
First off, let it be said that there was no way the Tories were going to allow any bill sponsored by Fletcher to become law. The renegade MLA was kicked out of the PC caucus for frequent acts of mutiny. Any private member’s bill with his name on it is destined to become a litter-box liner.
However, the Tories can’t admit that spite drove them to discard Fletcher’s bill. So, via Helwer, they spouted some nonsense about religious concerns that are, to some extent, a red herring.
There certainly are religious sentiments that associate organ donation with desecration of remains. However, even in those religions where the debate is most vigorous — such as Judaism — there is support significant for organ donation.
In Israel, for example, advocates of medical necessity found a solution: priority for available organs would be given to people who had provided prior consent to donate their own organs. One of the architects of this policy, a cardiologist, said he pressed for changes after he had been told by several Orthodox Haredi Jews that although they would never donate organs, they saw nothing wrong in accepting a donated organ.
And that, in a nutshell, is the problem we face in Canada. Faced with the imminent demise of a loved one who needed a new heart or lung or kidney, most of us would strike any deal necessary to secure a new organ. And we would do that even if we had no intention of actually donating our own organs.
The current system has relied almost entirely on our willingness to step up and do the right thing. And to this point, we’ve failed spectacularly in that challenge. For all the right reasons, it’s certainly time to give presumed consent a test drive.
For the Pallister government, it’s a potential watershed moment. The previous NDP government never got around to dealing with this issue. Desperate to create contrast between themselves and the evil New Democrats, the Tories can demonstrate some real initiative by making presumed consent a hallmark of their new approach to governing.
The Tories couldn’t stomach a solution that was penned by Fletcher. Fine. So let’s get on with the business of designing a modern policy to encourage more organ donation that doesn’t contain any of his input.
In political hyperbole, politicians too often describe challenges as matters of life and death. This is one of those instances where presumed consent is a life-and-death issue.
Largely because, without a new law, people will most definitely die.