Massachusetts lawmakers walk back proposal to reduce prisoners’ sentences in exchange for donating their organs

By Kate Scanlon | OSV News

(OSV News) — Massachusetts lawmakers walked back Feb. 2 a proposal to reduce sentence time for incarcerated individuals who donate their organs or bone marrow.

Human rights and Catholic advocates raised ethical concerns about the proposal ranging from the informed consent of prisoners to the commodification of human organs.

As originally introduced, the bill, HD.3822, would have reduced the prison sentences of incarcerated individuals from 60 days up to a year, “on the condition that the incarcerated individual has donated bone marrow or organ(s).”

The bill was sponsored by Massachusetts State Reps. Carlos González and Judith García, who argued that the proposal would help make more donor organs available. It would restore “bodily autonomy to incarcerated folks by allowing them to donate organs (and) bone marrow,” and “recognize incarcerated donors’ decisions” with reduced time, per a tweet from García.

But Catholic and other human rights advocates criticized the proposal, noting that U.S. law prohibits organ donation for “valuable consideration.”

Jozef Zalot, a staff ethicist at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, told OSV News that offering an incentive for organ donation could “really cloud the question of is someone truly free to donate organs.”

A prison guard stands watch in Huntsville, Texas, in this undated photo. (CNS photo/Richard Carson, Reuters)

“The key is you’re doing good — and that should be the motivation,” Zalot said. “The motivation shouldn’t be something else; it should be ‘what can I do for the good of another human being?'”

After a series of concerns were raised over the bill including the exploitation of prisoners, the lawmakers walked back their proposal, describing the bill as the first step to a bigger discussion.

In a statement emailed to OSV News, García said, “We filed this legislation in response to those who expressed frustration with the scarcity of information on donating an organ or bone marrow to a loved one while incarcerated. The core goal of this legislation is to establish a clear process and protocol for people in that position.

García said that disproportionate incarceration rates for “Black and Brown communities,” and “discriminatory incarceration rates eliminate many likely donor matches from the pool.”

“This reality is felt viscerally: African Americans spend an average of 1,335 days on the kidney transplant waitlist compared to an average of 734 days for whites,” García said. “High incarceration rates mean depriving non-incarcerated family members of lifesaving treatment and depriving incarcerated individuals of the opportunity to save a loved one’s life.”

García said that “addressing this inequity was always the goal of this legislation, and filing the bill is only the start of a much-needed conversation.”

“We’re grateful for all the input we’ve received which has shed light on ways to improve it — like removing the reduced sentencing provisions to prevent perverse incentives,” García said. “We look forward to working with constituents, activists and stakeholders to continue this conversation.”

González did not immediately reply to a request for comment from OSV News.

Jesuit Father Andrea Vicini, a theologian and medical doctor who examines theological bioethics and subjects such as public health at Boston College, told OSV News that the proposal as originally introduced “is not attentive to the condition of vulnerability of these individual human beings, and is undermining the needed free consent, free and informed consent” necessary for ethical heath care.

The bill also neglects to address or recognize often inadequate health care in the prison system, Father Vicini said.

“We know that the prison system is already not sufficiently caring for the prisoners in terms of health care services,” he said.

Father Vicini pointed to a 2000 address to the International Congress of the Transplantation Society by St. John Paul II, in which the pontiff said that organ donations “are a great step forward in science’s service of man,” but identified a number of key ethical concerns surrounding the practice, including taking steps to ensure human organs are never commercialized.

“Accordingly, any procedure which tends to commercialize human organs or to consider them as items of exchange or trade must be considered morally unacceptable, because to use the body as an ‘object’ is to violate the dignity of the human person,” the pontiff said in his address.

The priest also pushed back on the lawmakers’ arguments that the bill would restore bodily autonomy to those who are incarcerated. A discussion of bodily autonomy for prisoners should address inadequate health care resources in prisons and overcrowding, Father Vicini said. Instead, he found it “interesting” that prisoners’ bodily autonomy was invoked for the “direct convenience … to make available more organs.”

Father Vicini said the bill as originally introduced proposes “something that is not respecting the ethical concerns that everyone should be informed and have the freedom of giving consent” by introducing a quid pro quo.

The 1984 National Organ Transplant Act prohibits selling or buying human organs and tissues in the U.S. It is illegal in the U.S. to offer “valuable consideration” for organ or tissue donation.

The United Network for Organ Sharing’s ethics committee wrote in 2014 that “any law or proposal that allows a person to trade an organ for a reduction in sentence, particularly a sentence from death to life in prison, raises numerous issues,” including informed consent and coercion.

Author: OSV News

OSV News is a national and international wire service reporting on Catholic issues and issues that affect Catholics.

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