The push to find more organs has gotten so desperate that we are now negotiating with mass murderers about the feasibility of using their parts after they are executed. While vicious creeps like Christian Longo connive to get national attention with talk of "repaying society" and finding "redemption" for their crimes, the facts are that obtaining organs from executed prisoners is impractical, poses huge health risks to potential recipients and is utterly unethical.
First, lets get the ethics of this very bad idea out of the way.
The main prison advocate for allowing those on death row to donate organs is Oregon inmate Christian Longo. He argues he should have the right to do what he wants with his body after his death in order to repay society for his evil deeds. Really?
What exactly did Longo do that landed him on death row?
He killed his wife MaryJane, 34, and children Zachery, 4, Sadie, 3, and Madison, 2. He strangled MaryJane and Madison, stuffing their bodies in suitcases, and throwing them into a bay. Then he drove Zachery and Sadie to a nearby bridge, tied rock-filled pillowcases to their legs, and threw them into the water, where they drowned. At his trial, evidence indicated that he killed his family because they were hindering his life style.
How remorseful was he about this horrific slaughter? After the murders, Longo fled to Mexico where he engaged in a variety of cons and swindles, including assuming the identity of a former New York Times reporter, all while having himself a very good time, until he was caught.
Should society permit Christian Longo any psychological satisfaction? What do the surviving family and friends of his wife think about giving him the chance to "pay back society" for his crimes?
Ethical, practical dilemmas
Whatever you think of the death penalty, allowing an executed prisoner to redeem himself by organ donation completely undermines the rationale for executions by turning murderers into heroes. If that is not reason enough to kill the idea, there's the fact that it won’t work on practical grounds.
There are not that many people executed in the United States. In 2010, there were 46 executions, down from a peak of 98 in 1999. That number is dropping as some states abandon capital punishment and others find themselves struggling to find the drugs needed to carry out executions. Presuming some of those who will die won’t agree to donate, what is really being discussed involves a small number of deaths. In truth, hardly any of their organs will be usable.
Execution makes it hard to obtain organs. Some forms of killing — electrocution, poisoning —ruin organs. Some forms of lethal injection might not, but organs do not last very long. What would have to happen is an execution followed immediately by doctors running into the execution chamber to saw them out. How many doctors and nurses are going to engage in this kind of spectacle? It is inconceivable that professional organizations in health care would allow their members to be involved.
Even if they did, death row prisoners are often in lousy shape. Their diet is bad, they get little exercise and many are older since they spent years appealing their sentences. Add to their bad health the fact that many are infected with HIV, hepatitis and other diseases and the number who could actually safely serve as organ donors dwindles to a tiny few.
Our nation does need more organ donors. But, the slimy efforts of some on death row to weasel their way toward feeling better about themselves and having others view them in a positive light ought to be seen for what they are — self-serving and half-baked. Using executed prisoners as organ donors is an idea that ought to be dead on arrival.
Arthur Caplan, Ph.D., is director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania.