In the UK, there are over 6000 people currently waiting for an organ. Sadly someone dies on that waiting list every day. Deciding to donate your organs when you pass away can be daunting and scary to think about, but it’s something we encourage you to do. Each person that donates their organs can save up to nine lives.
In 2017, Keira Ball, a 9 year old girl, died in a car accident. Her heart was later donated to Max Johnson who had been waiting 196 days for a transplant, saving his life. In May 2020 a new law passed in England, the Organ Donation Act, which honours Max and Keira. This new law aims to significantly reduce the number of people waiting for a transplant, and save many lives.
Organ Donation UK Law
The laws and policies surrounding organ donation is different for each of the countries within the UK. Knowing what the laws are in your country will help you have a better understanding of what the choices are for you and your family.
The new law that came into effect in England in May 2020 is an ‘opt out’ system. This means that aside from those meeting specific requirements (listed below) you will be automatically considered an organ donor. This does not however mean that you can’t change the decision. If you don’t want to donate your organs when you die, you can opt out or inform your family of your wishes.
- Children under 18
- People who lack the mental capacity to understand the new changes and make a decision
- People who have not lived in England for 12 months or more prior to their death
The law in Wales is ‘deemed consent’. This means that if you haven’t made a decision regarding whether or not you wish to donate your organs, it will be assumed that you have no objection to donate. You can still register your preferences - opt in or opt out.
In March 2021, Scotland will be adopting an ‘opt out’ system similar to England’s whereby if you haven’t recorded your decision by the time you die, you will be considered a possible donor unless you are in the excluded group. Until then, you will need to register a decision, or it can be made for you on your behalf by a family member. You are still able to opt in or out based on your preferences.
- Children under 18
- Those who lack the mental capacity to understand the new changes
- Those who have not lived in Scotland for 12 months or more prior to their death
In Northern Ireland, at the moment it is an ‘opt in’ system. This means that in order to donate your organs, you will need to register, or nominate up to two people to make the decision for you when the time comes. This may be amended in the future as the health minister aims to consider a soft opt out option.
Making A Decision
Regardless of the laws in your area of the UK, the decision is ultimately your own. Everyone has their own personal reasons for choosing to donate their organs or tissue, or not to, and they will be respected. It is important to make sure that your wishes are known by recording them on the NHS Organ Donor Register and/or by making sure that your family or loved ones are aware of them.
There are three decisions you can make regarding donating your organs - opt in, opt out and withdraw.
You can register your decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register (link above) to state that in the event of your death, you wish to donate your organs and tissue. You can state which parts of your body you would be happy to be donated. You can also include your faith and beliefs, and request that these are discussed with your family.
If you don’t want your organs or tissue to be donated, it’s important that you register this decision to ensure that your wishes are met (link above). We would also encourage you to inform your loved ones of the decision you’ve made.
If you have initially opted in to donate via the NHS Organ Donor Register, you are able to change your mind at any time and withdraw your decision (link above). Once you do so, your details will be removed from the register. So you will still need to register your decision, either Opt In or Opt Out, if you have a preference.
Can You Donate?
If you decide that you want to donate your organs after you die, or are struggling to make a decision, it’s important to know that you also have a choice of what organs you donate. One thing to remember, however, is that whether or not any or all of these organs are donated depends on their health and if there is a match that needs them.
Once you make your wish known to donate your organs, there are more decisions to be made by yourself, medical professionals, and your family. These would be regarding what you donate and whether or not it is safe to do so.
An organ donor can be of any age, race or ethnicity. However, in order to donate your organs after you die, you would have had to have met a number of criteria. The most important one being that in order to donate organs, the donor would have had to have died in a hospital.
Aside from that, there are a number of medical and lifestyle choices that may prevent you from being able to donate your organs. It is a common misconception that you are automatically disqualified from being able to donate organs if you are not able to donate blood. However this is not strictly true. Whether or not organs can be donated is assessed on an individual basis by healthcare professionals.
In rare cases that a limb transplant is needed, your family will need to consent to this.
If you’ve decided to become an organ donor, you can choose whether or not you want to donate all or some of your organs. Each organ donated can make a huge impact and difference to someone’s life, even save them. You can choose from any of the following organs to donate, and also choose to donate tissue.
Organs: heart, lungs, liver, kidney, pancreas, small bowel
Tissue: tissue, cornea, bone
Other Donor Options
You can choose to donate your body to science after you die. Body donation for science is a very noble way to help save and improve lives. It can be used to train healthcare professionals, or be used for research purposes to help scientists better understand the human body. If you wish to donate your body to medical science, contact your local medical school.
You will have probably heard of people donating a kidney or bone marrow to a loved one when they are in need. This is because you can live a long healthy life with just one kidney. You can also donate parts of your liver, bone, and tissue without long term effects.
Many people remain on a waiting list for organs or tissue for years in cases where they could have received the life saving transplant from a living donor. “The average waiting time for a kidney transplant from someone who has died is more than two and a half years.” - https://www.nhsbt.nhs.uk/
If you wish to become a living donor to someone you don’t know, you can contact a transplant centre to register.
Helping You Make a Decision
It is understandable that organ donorship, or any form of deciding what to do with your body after you die can feel daunting, but there are many materials available to help you decide what you want to do. You can either look at the NHS resources, or speak to your doctor. There are also a number of organ donation facts and common misconceptions that you may want to read about to help you understand better what your decision would mean for yourself, your family, and others.
It may also help for you to discuss your thoughts with loved ones or a faith leader. Remember that whatever you decide, you can change your mind.
Please note that the law might change in the future. Refer to the NHS Organ Donation website for the latest laws in the UK.
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