The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

November 16th, 2008

Even in death our organs are not for the PM to snatch

History, if it has any sense, will come to judge Gordon Brown with deep moral disapproval. Somehow the man has managed to blind most of us to his obvious faults, but I will take only one – his obstinacy in clinging, with all the force of his moral authority, such as it is, to morally dubious policies, against all advice and in defiance of the evidence. I mean his emotional support for a scheme to turn us all into organ donors, willy nilly, unless we individually opt out. In January Brown went public in an impassioned newspaper article, saying a system of presumed consent could save thousands of lives and “close the aching gap” between the benefits of organ transplants and “the limits imposed by our current system of consent”. This is wrong in so many ways it’s hard to know where to start. Fortunately, and embarrassingly for the prime minister, the organ donation taskforce he set up will firmly oppose presumed consent this week. The experts think such a system would do little or nothing to help the people who now face avoidable deaths because of the shortage of organ transplants. However, the real objection to the scheme is more serious than the practical one. It is an objection in principle and it would apply even if a system of assumed consent might save more patients. The idea lets in an evil and dangerous political principle – the assumption that the state owns our bodies. Brown and Labour governments before him have tried to nationalise our private lives; now he wants to nationalise our private parts. The thinking behind this is pure socialism. You and all your assets belong to the state to tax, teach, reeducate, redistribute and, generally speaking, harvest as it sees fit. It is an attitude that was tested to destruction in the bitter miseries of the 20th century but, like Dracula, it is mysteriously undead. The more civilised view, surely, is that although we share our assets with others, and they with us, it is because we feel a common duty to give, not because anyone has a right to take. We pay our taxes, most of us, and give to charity, by political choice and out of a sense of solidarity, through democratic agreement. However, our bodies and our incomes and our talents and our thoughts are our own, most particularly our bodies. This is an essential assumption of freedom and personal autonomy. For now, compassionate Gordon only wants our kidneys or our livers when we are dead. How about other parts, like organs of generation? Last week a baby was born as a result of an ovarian transplant, given by a woman to her twin sister. With assumed consent, working ovaries could be harvested from dead young women, which would mean that not just our own bodies, but those of our children and grandchildren, could be owned and disposed of by the state. How long would it be, on the principle that our bodies belong to the state, before the idea of consent would wither away? How long, for example, before the man in Whitehall claims entitlement to bits that we can afford to lose while still living? How about compulsory blood donation from people with highly unusual blood groups? Or bone marrow from the tiny number that has the right type for a particular patient? Or a few eggs for the infertile? How about minuscule bits of our DNA, from those few of us who are resistant to plagues? My view about this has nothing to do with religion. The argument in principle has no need of the usual religious arguments, many of them quaint. If anything, they weaken the case. However, I do think the case is strengthened by some practical matters. For one thing the NHS is grotesquely inefficient in many places; the expensive IT scheme is proving a failure and management is widely incompetent. I would not trust the system to know who has withheld consent, or indeed which body to take organs from. There are examples of NHS patients having the wrong leg cut off, or the wrong person given a cancer diagnosis. Last week it was reported that our health service is worse than Estonia’s, although we spend four times as much on each person. The NHS came 13th in a European consumer report by the think tank Health Consumer Powerhouse. Would you trust such an outfit with your fragile opt-out, dead or still living? It is bad enough that Brown should have come up with such a totalitarian scheme. What makes it worse is that he did so because he didn’t know, or chose to ignore, the facts. The real reason that people keep dying for lack of life-saving transplants, after 11 years of Labour spending on the NHS, is not that there aren’t enough donors. There are plenty of donors – 14m have signed up. Their organs just aren’t used. As Tim Statham, chief executive of the National Kidney Federation, explained last week, about 1,500 people die in the UK every day and 400 of them, statistically speaking, have signed the organ donor register. That makes about 800 available kidneys a day, not to mention all their other organs. Wasted. Denied to the living and buried or burnt. The real problem, as Brown and his people ought to have known, is that there isn’t enough surgery to make use of all these organs. There aren’t enough teams ready and waiting in enough hospitals. There aren’t enough surgeons or theatres or intensive care unit. As Statham pointed out, in Britain only five transplant operations are done each day. To meet the need for kidney transplants alone, there would have to be 10 kidney transplants a day. The problem is that there is no transplant culture here. Transplants don’t happen. “Let us be clear,” he said. “It is the shortfalls of the [NHS] service that is killing our patients, not the unwillingness of the public to sign up to a register.” What is needed is a proper, coordinated, vastly extended nationwide transplant service to use the many organs that 14m good citizens have already chosen to offer. But how much easier and cheaper for Brown to hold us, the innocent citizenry, responsible for all this suffering, to distract our attention from his own inexcusable failures with the NHS. Nice one, Gordon, but history won’t be fooled.