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Courts and Crime

Death row organ donation raises ethical questions
Some death row organ donations may be ethical, others not. A death penalty expert says it depends on the timing, and the organ

Jo Ingles
Executive Director Richard Dieter of The Death Penalty Information Center
Courtesy of The Death Penalty Information Center
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Ohio Governor John Kasich’s decision to put a death row inmate’s execution on hold while medical experts explore the option of organ donation for the condemned man isn’t the first time this ethics question has come up for debate.

The Death Penalty Information Center tracks executions in all of the nation’s 50 states. And in an interview with Ohio Public Radio’s Jo Ingles, the center’s Executive Director, Richard Dieter says while this isn’t the first time the issue has been considered, it does have an unusual distinction.

LISTEN: Ingles and Dieter on inmate organ donation

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Kasich's last minute stay was unusual
Dieter - “Well what certainly makes this unusual is the stay was granted less than 24 hours before the execution. There have been a couple of death row inmates that have been allowed to donate an organ but this really came close to removing that possibility because this was not a case of donating an organ during the execution. Rather it’s a kidney from which a person can do fine or well enough without one kidney so it puts him back in a prison context instead of an execution context and allows time for consideration of this issue. This is really close”

Ingles - “So is there a consensus in these kinds of cases? Is organ donation possible?”

Dieter - “Well it is possible. There’s certainly a consensus, almost an unanonymity, that vital organs and organs to be donated during execution, that would be forbidden. You can’t give consent or use a human life or involve doctors during an execution. There are just too many questions with ethics and voluntariness to allow that. But for a prisoner, for the moment consider them not on death row, to give blood or even work in the community, these are things that we do allow some interaction and not all rights are removed just because you are in prison.

Ethics considers the timing, and organ 
Ingles - “So you are referring to organs like kidneys or things that people could still survive without. You are not talking about organs that must be harvested upon death, right?”

Dieter - “That’s correct because otherwise, you’d be in a position of what if a person is waiting on this organ and the execution gets stayed, do you go ahead with it because a life would be saved? There’s too many pressures on the system at that moment and to think that someone can make a decision about their organs…are they going to change their mind if they get a day reprieve or something...or the involvement of doctors would be problematic as well." 

Dieter says, "[harvesting] non vital organs from someone who would not be close to execution will be possible. I think that’s what the Governor is asking for right now. It’s not necessarily that it would be granted but that it is going to be possibly allowed, considered, and weigh the possible pros and cons. 

The Death Penalty Information Center’s Richard Dieter says issues like these raise ethical questions that take some time to contemplate. Inmate Ronald Phillips wants to give his kidney and liver to family members then donate other organs to strangers. Dieter says this stay indicates some of those donations could be possible.

A new execution date has been set for July 2, 2014.

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