For many years, I have had the great fortune to travel widely in the world. However, on several continents I have very sadly been witness to a dissonant contrast between rich and poor within the same country. The scale of such poverty is fortunately far beyond what we now see within our own country, and almost has to be seen to be believed.
What has often struck me most in such situations is the manner in which the richer members of the given society almost blindly ignore their starving, ill and dying neighbours. Although opulent wealth, mansion-style houses, serviced swimming pools and expensive cars sit cheek-by-jowl with crowded slum dwellings in shanty-style townships, there is little evidence of organised relief from the rich to the poor. It is almost as though the high walls and fences that divide the two disparate populations form an invisibility cloak, allowing the poor to see the rich, but not the converse. As a result, the rich throw large quantities of unwanted, but perfectly edible, food away, not thinking to donate it to their neighbours and thereby perhaps salvage a human life or two. Meanwhile, the poor and destitute can only look on with pleading eyes and outstretched hands; watching helplessly, whilst what they need most is wasted and ruined in landfill sites or rubbish incinerators.
Sometimes the distressing images are shown on our television screens, albeit sanitised by distance and, quite significantly, the lack of smell. The immediate impact on our senses and emotions is therefore reduced. However, we still usually profess a sense of indignant shock, fuelled by the sight and knowledge of what is happening; often with a profound sense of disquiet and a resultant desire to help.
To our shame there is a poignant analogy in this country, which we choose to ignore. For us, it is not so much food that is blatantly thrown away in sight of those who are desperate for help in saving their lives; it is our bodies – our hearts, livers, lungs and kidneys; organs that are of no use to us once we have finished with them, but could be the difference between life and death for our still living, but seriously ill neighbours. Instead, many of us ignore their pleas for help and choose to bury perfectly good, functional organs in cemeteries or submit them to the incinerators of the crematoria. The analogy between our actions and the foreign scenes described above cannot be ignored.
In the UK alone, there is a 7,800-strong transplant waiting list. Sadly, every year some 400 people die in A&E departments without attempts being made to utilise their organs. Even sadder is the 35% refusal rate amongst families who are asked if their loved one’s organs can be retrieved. However precious that person was in life, their organs are no longer any use to them; but they could save the lives of up to four or more other people. Not to offer the organs to those in need is akin to throwing away a decent meal in front of a starving man.
As a result, the BMA has re-opened the debate on whether organ donation should be made compulsory, with the possibility of keeping dead bodies artificially ventilated until the organs can be retrieved. Clearly, this is a controversial move and will no doubt spark an intense ethical debate. It is, however, a debate that is urgently needed. Shamefully, many more of us say that we would be willing to receive a donated organ than would be prepared to donate our organs after death. That is a disparity which has to be morally wrong and we need to work hard and fast to alter our society’s double-standard and ensure that our own death gives life to those who still have a chance to live. Society may not be ready for the BMA’s debate, but it is one which is long overdue and must be had. After all, organ donation is the ultimate in charitable giving. For more information call the donor line on 0300 123 23 23 or go online to http://www.uktransplant.org.uk
(First published in the Scunthorpe Telegraph, Thursday, 8th March 2012.)
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