A state lawmaker thinks he's found the perfect place to locate the hard-to-find organs needed for lifesaving transplants: on death row
Rep. Joe Dorman, D-Rush Springs, is drafting a bill that would allow prisoners facing the death penalty to donate their organs.
Dorman acknowledges that the controversial measure faces several hurdles, including changing the state's execution procedure for those who volunteer to serve as donors.
Oklahoma now executes inmates using lethal injection, which would render any donated organs unusable. Under Dorman's plan, inmates would be anesthetized, have their organs removed at the correctional facility by a surgeon, then be kept on life support until they are executed.
“I don't think it will be a tough sell,” Dorman said. “I think with the strong stance that we have with members of the Legislature being pro-life, I certainly see this as a pro-life idea because you're saving lives with the actions of that prisoner seeking redemption.”
But state Corrections Department officials say they have little money to afford such a program. And the head of the nonprofit group that oversees the state's organ donation registry questioned the ethics of such a prisoner-donor program, calling it a “potential disaster.”
Under Dorman's proposal, doctors would not wait for a person to be declared brain dead before harvesting their organs.
“It completely inverts the process (by) removing the organs while the patients are still alive and then executing them,” said Jeff Orlowski, CEO of Life Share Transplant Services, which oversees the organ donation registry in Oklahoma. “It's very much a problem.”
Orlowski also questioned the cost of building a prison surgical facility capable of handling such complex procedures.
“When we have an organ donor at a hospital, we may have surgical teams coming from California, Florida and Illinois to take individual organs they're going to take back and transplant,” Orlowski said. “You have to coordinate multiple surgical teams, and to have that happen in a correctional facility, I would think would be logistically impossible.”
By the numbers
• About 135,000 people are on the waiting list for an organ in the U.S.
• About 27,000 people receive transplants every year.
• About 7,000 die waiting.
• Orlowski estimated about 70 Oklahomans on the waiting list died last year before an organ could be found.
• Between 2010 and 2012, the state executed 11 inmates.
Even had they volunteered for such a program, Dorman and Orlowski agree that many probably would not have been eligible donors because of their poor health or past drug use, raising questions about the financial costs associated with such a small number of potential donors.
Orlowski said he would rather see the money needed to create a new execution system instead put into public education to increase awareness of the need for healthy organs, adding that the best thing anyone can do to help save lives is to register as an organ donor.
Joyce Jackson, a Corrections Department spokeswoman, said department representatives have no official opinion on Dorman's bill.
Jackson did say the costs could be burdensome on an already overcrowded, and, some say, underfunded prison system.
“I would say at this point, we can't afford much of anything,” Jackson said.
Dorman said he is optimistic about his bill's chances in the Legislature, adding that any potential costs associated with the new law would be worth it.
“You can't put a price on life,” Dorman said.