Most Germans say they support the idea of organ donation, but don't sign up themselves. A star-studded school campaign is raise awareness, though one of the central issues is left unaddressed.
German Health Minister Daniel Bahr likes showing his organ donor card. He's had it for a quite a while, he says, and "not just since I've been the health minister."
Currently, 12,000 people in Germany on the donor registry waiting for a transplant. According to statistics, one person dies every eight hours who could have survived, had they received a compatible donor organ.
To help change those statistics, an awareness campaign has been launched in some German schools, for ninth graders and older.
"We don't want to pressure them, but we want to convince them that organ donation is worth it," said Bahr, suggesting it's never too early to inform children. "It's important to talk about the issue of donation."
Cool songs for more donations
The school program involved a 20-minute film that is hosted by two young musicians, singer Nele and rapper Bo Flower. When talking about organ donation, a song text like "I give you my heart" suddenly has a completely different meaning.
"Young people want to be told the facts, together with an emotional component," said Elisabeth Pott, director of the BzGA, the German government health authority responsible for distributing the film.
The DVD shows a transplant recipient speaking to students: "I'm here as a survivor, I've lived for three years with another persons heart." The relatives of someone who died and donated their organs also talk about the joy they have, in the midst of their grief, knowing the decision has helped others.
Students find out that they are legally allowed to opt out of being organ donors when they turn 14. When they turn 16, they can proactively choose whether they want to donate or not. They learn that you can only become a donor where you're brain dead and what that means exactly.
The makers of the DVD emphasize that its explanations are meant to be neutral. But subtle references more or less encourage students to sign up for a donor card.
New transplant guidelines
The campaign is about more than just increasing organ donation, although the hope is that Germans, who generally favor organ donation, finally agree to become donors themselves.
The video also comes at the same time as a pending EU-mandated amendment to Germany's organ donation law. The new laws, which have Bahr's backing, see health insurance companies proactively asking clients to become donors.
The DVD aims to reduce people's reservations by addressing a few common concerns and misconceptions, like the fear that an organ-trafficking mafia is involved, or that doctors prematurely remove organs.
When is someone brain dead?
The discussion doesn't end here. One of the most interesting questions with regard to the transplant technique doesn't appear on the DVD. Legally speaking, a person who is brain dead is considered dead. And death is a condition for donating vital orans.
But are brain dead and dead really the same thing? Most physicians would say yes.
"Being brain dead is irreversible and, without intensive medical care, the rest of a person's body would gradually stop functioning," said Stephan Brandt, deputy director of the neurology clinic at the Charité Hospital in Berlin. "There is no longer interaction with the surrounding environment, at least not in a way that we would associate it with the term life."
On the other hand, Brandt said that "death can be viewed from an ethical, theological and social perspective." Critics point out that the body of a brain dead individual is still warm, and their cells still go through the process of dividing.
For philosopher Ralf Stoecker, chair of the applied ethics department at the University of Potsdam, a brain dead person can't necessarily be clearly defined as "dead" or "alive."
"It's a situation that doesn't correlate to our understanding of either life or death," he said. A brain dead individual is dead in one sense, but alive in another. "We are possibly dealing with another state of being altogether and we will have to figure out how to deal with it," Stoecker added.
In Germany, discussion about organ donation could become more intense than health insurance companies and politicians expected.
Author: Heiner Kiesel / jw
Editor: Kate Bowen