Northern Ireland’s top organ transplant surgeons have urged caution on a proposal to adopt a presumed consent donation model.
Stormont’s Health minister Simon Hamilton told the Assembly consultants in the Regional Renal and Transplantation Centre in Belfast’s City Hospital had written a joint letter to him expressing concerns.
Mr Hamilton outlined the views of the clinicians as he responded to an Assembly debate on a proposed ‘soft opt out’ model of organ donation.
The Private Member’s Bill tabled by Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson calls for the adoption of a system whereby people are presumed to be donors unless they state otherwise before their deaths.
However, under the model, family members would still have the final say on whether organs would be donated.
Mrs Dobson, whose son Mark received a life changing kidney transplant, wants to adopt the system similar to the one being introduced in Wales next month.
But DUP MLA Mr Hamilton said the City Hospital’s consultant surgeons were “hesitant” about a law change.
A number of the minister’s party colleagues have also voiced concern about a soft opt system.
Announcing his intent to set up a working group of clinicians to examine the issue, Mr Hamilton read a section of the letter to the Assembly.
It stated: “While fully supportive of the principle of increasing the number of deceased donor organs available to provide life-saving transplantation, we are cautious about any change which, although well-meaning, may potentially have a detrimental impact on the public’s willingness to donate.
“There are differing opinions within both the medical profession and society at large with regard to the acceptability of an ‘opt out’ system. The perception by some that this effectively means acquisition by the state of ‘body parts’, and removal of the altruistic aspect of donation, is of concern. These and other ethical issues have prevented the global adoption of presumed consent legislation.”
The medics said there was a need to increase public awareness before considering a law change.
They said an assessment of the impact of the change in Wales should also have been undertaken.
Mr Hamilton said the letter contained “powerful and important words”.
“Clearly, Mr Speaker, they are urging caution,” said the minister.
“A ‘wait and see’ approach. Not ruling legislation out forever, but urging us to defer change.”
Calling for a law change, Mrs Dobson said there was an acute need to increase donor rates in Northern Ireland.
“The plain truth about organ donation is that the number of available organs does not meet the demand. And that, in a nutshell, is the reason why a change in legislation is required,” she said.
The MLA added: “Last year, 17 people from Northern Ireland died while they were waiting on that telephone call to let them know that a match organ had become available. Members, for them, that call will never come. It is for them and for future generations that we need to adopt a different approach – to lift our eyes from the present to a future where organ donation is not viewed an exception but rather the norm.”
Mrs Dobson’s Human Transplant Bill is at the early stages of the legislative process.
After Monday’s marathon debate, MLAs voted it through its second Assembly stage by 46 votes to 17 .
It will now be subject to scrutiny by Stormont’s Health committee before returning to the floor of the house.
Sinn Féin MLA Maeve McLaughlin, who chairs the committee, said changing organ donation legislation would change lives.
“Organ transplants not only save lives, but enable people to live their lives more fully, for example by freeing them from the need for dialysis,” she said.