The need for Medical Law reforms? A view on the Abortion Act and the system of organ donation.

In the final Medical Law workshop of this Semester, the students had the opportunity to consider recent news stories and developments in the area of Medical Law. Whilst there is much in the news at present, the two areas the students decided to focus on was the law on abortion and the proposed change in the organ donation system.

Is the law on abortion still fit for purpose?

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act, back in 1967. It is hard to believe that such a controversial topic of law has remained frozen for half a century!

Recently, the media has drawn attention onto the old fashioned nature of the law. For example, abortion is still technically a crime, with the medical procedure being a defence to accusations of destroying the foetus. Demands have been raised to end this and have abortion deemed as nothing more than a regular medical procedure.

However, some have also called for a tightening of the law with regards to the time limit of when an abortion can be had. Improvements in technology mean that survival rates for premature babies is much higher than was the case when the Act was passed.

One individual giving support to the decriminalisation of abortion is Lord Steel. You can see his views on the matter by following this link: Steel: We should decriminalise abortion

Further issues have been raised in that women seeking abortions are reportedly being harassed by pro-lifer protesters outside clinics. Several protest bans have already been implemented over certain clinics; however this threatens the Article 10 right to freedom of expression under the 1998 human rights act.

This topical issue can be looked at in more detail here: Government considers new powers to tackle aggressive protests outside abortion clinics

(Thanks to Jonathan Martin, Tanya Mokieynko and Gbenga Idowu for their research and write up of this issue).

“Congratulations! You are now an organ donor!”

The Government is proposing a change in the law to amend the organ donation scheme from an opt-in system to an opt-out system throughout England. This move has been taken to address the shortages in organs and to reduce the waiting lists of 6,500 people for organ transplants.

Under current legislation, section 1 of the Human Tissue Act 2004, appropriate consent is required to remove tissue from a deceased human body for transplantation. The Act states that consent by the donor is required for both living donors and posthumous donors (those whose organs are transplanted after death).

One way of obtaining that consent is by the person registering to become an organ donor and carrying their individual organ donor card, which is used by healthcare professionals to identify valid consent. To sign up, an online form can be filled out with personal details. The registration system is fairly straightforward and would take from 5-10 minutes to complete. At registration, a donor can even state which organs they don’t want to be donated if they feel particularly strong about it.

Despite the easy system of registering to become an organ donor, there are less people who have registered as organ donors than those who have indicated that they would be happy to donate their organs. A 2004 BBC survey indicated that 90% said that were willing to donate, but only 50% had actually registered.

Why is this an issue?

In the UK, according to an NHS website, there are 6,500 patients waiting for an organ for transplantation. Out of those, 450 people die every year waiting for an organ (a figured cited at the following link:

If there are more people who want to be organ donors than those who are registered, potentially, organs are being wasted when they could have been transplanted to another patient who has been waiting for the organ for a long time.

An opt-in organ donation system?

Consultations are being carried out to identify whether there should be a change to the registration system. Under the proposed system, all residents of the UK will automatically be registered as an organ donor and will be presumed to give consent to donating their organs upon death. If people do not want their organs to be donated, they would be able to register to be taken out of the system.

In the UK, a 2005 survey stated that 78% of the participants preferred a shift to the presumed consent system. The opt-out system is currently in place in Wales. Other countries like Belgium, Italy and Greece have also adopted the system.

However, there is criticism that there is no proof that there would be an increase the number of donations. In Austria for example, the switch to an opt-out system did not have an impact on the number of organ donations made.

There is also the view that an opt-out system could create mistrust between medical professionals and patients. The view is that it would be preferable to find ways to encourage people to join the register. A possible option is to run a registration campaign at schools to get older pupils to register as organ donors.

More information about the consultation can be found at the following link:

Are you in favour of a change in the law?

(Researched and written by Kimberly Nielsen, Lewis Banks and Charles Allaway – thank you all).

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