If you or a loved one has needed an organ transplant, you know the problem firsthand: There are not enough organs for those who need them and there is a long waiting period.
That desperate need, and potential profits, have fueled a Frankenstein-like effort to find or create organs to give recipients a longer lease on life.
The need for organs can be a matter of life or death. In the United States, more than 105,000 people sit on the national waiting list, and every nine minutes, a new name is added. Seventeen people die every day while waiting for an organ transplant in the United States, according to the government’s organ donor website.
The most common transplant operations are for hearts, kidneys, livers, pancreases, lungs, bone and bone marrow, skin, and intestines; some such transplants come from living donors, but most are obtained after a donor is deceased.
Different organs remain viable for different amounts of time after the patient has died, or after the organ has been taken from the deceased.
According to Donor Alliance, the liver can remain viable for transplant for up to 12 hours, and kidneys for up to 36 hours. But for other organs, such as the heart or lungs, that window is much shorter, in the range of 4 to 6 hours.
With so few organs available for so many in need, there’s tremendous pressure on scientists and industry to push the boundaries of medical ethics with products and procedures that can sound like mad science.
These vanguard developments raise fundamental questions about human life, the commodification of the human body, and the very definition of “human.”
Let’s put aside the obvious horrors of forced organ harvesting from prisoners of conscience in China, including Tibetans, Uyghurs, and, most notably, Falun Gong practitioners, “the primary victims of this cruel practice,” according to the U.S. Human Rights Commission.
Everyone can agree that this practice is abhorrent, but there are other new practices that raise more complex questions, including a new practice that some fear is being used to curb the dead donor rule.
That rule requires that a patient be dead, and often for several minutes, before their organs are taken. This ensures organs only come from the deceased.