In the Service of Human Life
Tree on a hill on a starry night
Applied Bioethics in stylized text
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In the Service of Human Life

Basic Transplant Ethics

The Boneyard is a magical place for pilots and aviation enthusiasts. When the Department of Defense retires an aircraft, it’s flown out into the Arizona desert and parked on a massive military base. Surveying the rows of thousands of aircraft, you get a sense of the history of military aviation in the United States, and the amazing stories that behind these planes.

It’s not just airplanes from the 1950s and 1960s parked in the Boneyard, but even models that are still flying. Early models of the F-16, or example, rest at the Boneyard, preserved in the arid climate. While some of the planes at the Boneyard may be recalled to active service, most won’t. They are a resource to operational flying units. When a part breaks, the maintenance crew can call down to the Boneyard and ask for a canabalized part. This is particularly helpful if the needed part is no longer in production. Technicians will review the Boneyard inventory, find the part on one of the parked planes, remove it, and ship it to the squadron. This cost effective technique allows for older, non-flyable planes to continue to add value beyond scrap metal.

The progress that we’ve made in the field of human organ transplantation is remarkable. Gravely ill people are able to receive organs that give them a new lease on life. In most cases, organ transplants are an ethically valid procedure. Organ donations can be made by a still living person or by a recently deceased one. Donating organs is ethically valid if there is consent on the part of both parties, if the donation is done with the intent to prolong the life of the receiver, if the donation won’t cause immediate harm or death to the donor, and if the organs are assigned to patients within the established guidelines of prioritization.

The danger that organ donation presents is that it can be perverted easily. These perversions take an ethically good technology and create a grave moral evil. A less common perversion would be the intent. If the donor wants to give up an organ for an irrational reason, that would make the transplantation unethical. This would be something like a person hates a particular organ and wants it removed. Again, not very common.

Informed consent presents the second major perversion, and this one is more common than any of us would like to think. Organs that are stolen by individuals, or governments, and transplanted, even if they save someone else’s life, are done so unethically. Harvesting organs from political prisoners, through medical experimentation, or any other associated ghoulish activity is decidedly unethical, again, regardless of the outcome.

Finally, any organ donation that would create direct and immediate harm to the donor, or even death, would be unethical. This would include a donor’s heart, both lungs, both kidneys, eyes, or any other complete organ that’s required for life or whose removal would constitute a harm to the donor. Organs that are removed from a donor who is still alive, whose heart is still beating, are markedly more useful than those removed from a recently deceased donor. Even just a few minutes can make the difference between an organ being viable for transplantation. However, despite this medical fact, the integrity and dignity of the human person demands that they be seen and treated as a person, not a retired airplane sitting in the desert waiting to give up all of its most valuable parts.

Our code of ethics provides the guardrails by which we ensure that technologies and procedures created for good ends remain that way. The human body has many parts that can be useful to preserving the lives of others, but they can only be used ethically if they are freely given and the dignity of both patients is protected.