Massachusetts bill proposing reduced prison time in exchange for organ donation sparks ethics debate

Two state-level Massachusetts Democrats have proposed highly controversial legislation that would allow incarcerated inmates to donate organs and bone marrow in exchange for a reduced sentence.

Seen here, the bill by state Reps. Carlos Gonzalez and Judith Garcia would, if signed into law, “establish a Marrow and Organ Donation Program within the Department of Correction and a Bone Marrow and Organ Donation Committee.”

The program would “allow eligible incarcerated individuals to gain not less than 60 and not more than 365 day reduction in the length of their committed sentence in Department of Corrections facilities, or House of Correction facilities if they are serving a Department of Correction sentence in a House of Corrections facility, on the condition that the incarcerated individual has donated bone marrow or organ(s).”

The committee, meanwhile, would determine exactly how much time off the inmate is awarded.

Garcia was evidently motivated to pursue this legislation because “there is currently no path to organ or bone marrow donation for incarcerated folks in MA — even for relatives,” as she explained in a Twitter post.

Plus, there are “nearly 5,000 MA residents … currently awaiting organ transplants,” and allowing incarcerated inmates to donate would “restore bodily autonomy … by providing [them with the] opportunity to donate organs & bone marrow.”

Speaking with local radio station WHYN (AM), Garcia stressed that implementing this plan would broaden the pool of potential donors and thus save more lives.

“I’ve put more effort into this bill after visiting a friend, who I consider a brother, in the hospital who is required to have dialysis 3 to 4 times a week while he awaits a kidney transplant. He’s a father of three children, and he in his stage 4 of kidney failure,” she said.

“Unless he can obtain a kidney at 40 years old, life expectancy is about 10.4 years for men and 9.1 years for women. I love my friend and I’m praying through this legislation we can extend the chances of life,” Garcia added.

And so what’s the problem? According to David Sirota’s The Lever news site, one problem is ethics.

“In essence, the bill would ask prisoners which is more important to them: their freedom, or their organs and bone marrow,” the outlet notes.

This is reportedly a big no-no.

“The Ethics Committee of the United Network for Organ Sharing, the nonprofit that administers organ transplants in the United States, has panned proposals like the Massachusetts bill,” the outlet continues.

Another problem is legality. When lawmakers in South Carolina proposed something similar in 2007, ABC News responded by pointing to legislation already on the books banning such proposals.

“Chances are the bill will not pass because it’s probably going to be considered a violation of federal law. Congress passed the National Organ Transplant Act in 1984 that makes it a federal crime ‘to knowingly acquire, receive, or otherwise transfer any human organ for valuable consideration for use in human transplantation,'” ABC News reported at the time.

ABC News also raised ethical concerns: “For one thing, being locked up and wanting to get out might make a person too desperate to be able to think rationally. Dr. Douglas W. Hant, Chief of the Division of Transplantation at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center says someone who is incarcerated can not make a free and informed decision to donate.”

“There is always the risk and possibility of coercion, particularly if there is a reward such as 180 days off a sentence,” Hant said in his own words.

Social media users have raised similar concerns:

The bill is also facing pushback from the Prisoners’ Legal Services of Massachusetts,  an organization that reportedly advocates on behalf of prisoners.

A spokesperson for the organization said the group is “in touch with the bill sponsors and [are] cognizant of the significant problem of racial inequity in our health system that has left BIPOC communities disproportionately impacted by organ and marrow shortages.”

“However, we are concerned regarding the potential for coercion and impact of inadequate medical care in carceral settings. We believe the solution must target the underlying structural problems leading to health disparities, including ongoing needless incarceration of so many who could live freely and safely in our communities,” the group added.


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