Facing a growing list of patients in desperate need of an organ transplant, Germany's Ethics Council met to discuss ways of loosening the country's strict transplant laws. The chancellor cautioned against drastic steps.
Science, not wealth, should decide who receives transplant surgery
According to legislation passed seven years ago, organ transplants are only allowed if donors have expressed their consent via a donor card or if approved by the deceased person's closest relatives. The law makes Germany the only country in the European Union where purchasing organs from living donors is illegal at a time when the number of willing donors is steadily declining.
"The principle of solidarity in German health care can only be maintained if a central clearing house system ensures the distribution of organs," Chancellor Gerhard Schröder told the council. "We must never allow organ transplantation to depend on individual income."
The chancellor made his remarks Friday during a meeting of the German Ethics Council -- a panel of German scientists and experts who advise the government on issues like stem cell research and human cloning. The council is currently working on new guidelines for organ transplantation.
Some scientists find Germany's total ban on any trade in human organs to be counterproductive. The list of patients waiting for vital organs is getting longer and longer while willingness to donate them is dropping among the population.
Few German donors
Only 8 percent of Germans are willing to give up their organs after they die
Only about 6 million Germans, or 8 percent of the population, are currently registered as potential donors, 10 percent less than last year, said Eckhard Nagel, a transplant surgeon at a hospital in Berlin.
"About one and a half years ago I personally saw no reason to waste a thought on the issue because for me the human body couldn’t be for sale," he said. "But in the wake of a stronger commercialization of life, we are forced to come up with an agreement on ethical principles guiding monetary aspects in organ transplantation."
German laws shouldn’t be relaxed to such an extent that they promote a lively trade in organs from Third World donors, as is the case in other European countries. The the first step should be to tap into Germans' overwhelming readiness to donate organs, ethics panel member Wolfgang van den Daele said.
"We should try to make people understand that it’s a fair deal they are getting," he said. "We should tell people they can expect an organ transplant in return for expressing their willingness to donate one."
For the time being though the experts have been suggesting more practical steps. One proposes lifting the ban on the transplantation of organs without consent from patients who suffer a stroke and who haven't explicitly ruled out a transplant.
Experts believe such a step would increase the availability of organs without fostering the transplant tourism that is prevalent in many countries around the world.