Geoffrey Robinson and Lord Hunt: The evidence is clear – an organ donation opt-out will save lives

Posted On: 
10th September 2018

Too many people in England are dying as a result of our low donor rates. Deemed consent, alongside a properly funded public awareness programme, could be transformational, write Geoffrey Robinson and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath

Survivors of major transplant surgery meet at Papworth Hospital in Cambridgeshire to mark Organ Donation Week
Credit: 
PA Images

One of the great advantages of Private Members’ Bills is their cross-party nature.  The Organ Donation (Deemed Consent) Bill has the backing of the party leaders of all seven parties in the House of Commons. 

This week it is getting its Money Resolution and going into Committee following a public consultation which attracted overwhelming public support for our proposals from almost 17,000 individuals – that is more than any consultation the Department of Health has ever commissioned.  It is pleasing that the government is continuing to support our ambition of an organ transplantation system which aims to be world-leading.

Given that the vast majority of countries with the highest donor rates have opt-out systems in place, the government now predicts that once the new system is operating in England new law, 700 more transplants and 700 more lives can be saved every year.   

Families will continue to always be consulted before any donation can take place.  We believe this is the right approach to take and ensures we retain the high level of trust the public has in the presently operated system. 

Consistently, polls have found that the vast majority of people wish for their organs to be donated after death but never get around to signing the register.

But with so few members of the public discussing their wishes with families and registering their decision under the current system, the waiting list for patients has grown. 

International evidence overwhelmingly suggests that moving to opt-out increases the number of organ donations over time. Spain and Belgium have climbed international league tables to become the two world-leading countries in organ transplantation since they introduced systems of deemed consent combined with investment in staff, training and facilities during the 1980s. Indeed, the majority of EU countries have moved to opt-out systems, with not one of those countries changing back to an exclusively opt-in system.

By contrast, too many people are dying in England as a result of our low donor rates and comparatively high rates of families refusing to approve donations sometimes out of fear their loved one would not have consented.  For patients in England needing a transplant, the waiting list must resemble something like an invisible death row.  We have to do better.

Max’s Law will only reach its true life-saving potential if it is to be combined with a long-term commitment to investing in transplantation infrastructure. The benefits of extensive public awareness and education cannot easily be overstated.  We know the government are as fully committed as we are to the principle of encouraging more and more people to discuss their wishes with their families. 

We are confident the government will provide the NHS Blood & Transplant the funding it needs to save hundreds of lives a year. A long-term plan for sustained public awareness communications to accompany the change in the law is vital. 

We also fully support and welcome the government’s plans to improve the NHS Organ Donor Register which will increase the ways the general public can make a decision, including a new phone app which will make those decisions easier to register than ever before.

As well as public awareness, Max’s Law can only succeed with many more well-trained specialist nurses, surgeons and greater operating theatre capacity.  In addition, greater investment in machine perfusion which preserve organs for future use would be wise given that the average age of an organ donor in the UK is 52.

Organ donation is a gift.  We believe Max’s Law will help widen and enrich the public’s understanding of the importance of that gift and encourage significantly more people to have that important conversation with their loved ones about their wishes, so we can save more lives.

Geoffrey Robinson is Labour MP for Coventry North West, and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath is a Labour peer