A staggering 90% of people in the UK said that they would be happy for their organs to be used for transplantation – and yet, less than a third have actually joined the Organ Donation Register.
Transplanting organs and tissues is one of the most successful forms of medical treatment. One donor can improve or save up to nine lives by donating their organs or tissues.
Despite a steady increase in the number of people registered on the Organ Donation Register, there is still a shortage of organs for donation.
In Wales last year, 41 people died while waiting for an organ donor. It is therefore crucial that we have a system in place which maximises the number of potential donors available but – at the same time – one which ensures that an individual’s right to opt out is fully protected.
Put simply, organ donation saves lives. This is why the Welsh Liberal Democrats feel that it is only right to improve the way that organ donation works in Wales.
Earlier this month the Welsh Government introduced the Human Transplantation (Wales) Bill to the National Assembly for Wales. The Bill recommends what is called a “soft” opt-out system for consent to deceased organ and tissue donation in Wales.
Its aim is to increase the number of organs and tissues available for transplantation and to reduce the number of people who die while waiting for a suitable organ to become available.
The essential difference between the proposed opt-out system and what we have now is one of consent. Currently, an individual must join the Organ Donation Register in order for his or her organs to be used for transplantation purposes.
In a soft opt-out system, it would be up to the individual to opt out of presumed membership to the Organ Donation Register. In other words, a person’s consent to donation would be presumed unless they had objected to it during their lifetime.
But in a “soft” opt-out system, the role of the family in informing the final decision on what happens to a relative’s organs would remain critical. Moreover, in practice, a medical professional would never insist on a donation if he thought it would cause unnecessary distress to the family.
It is expected that the Human Transplantation (Wales) Bill will become law in 2015. In the meantime, people across Wales are encouraged to ask questions, voice concerns and, most importantly, talk to family and friends about their wishes.
As an Assembly Member and leader of a party which supports the need to change the way that organ donation works in Wales, I am all too aware of some of the uneasiness that accompanies the idea of an opt-out system.
Concerns are often raised around the issue of consent. And rightly so. Many people worry that the public awareness campaign will be insufficient – that it won’t reach the most vulnerable in society – and that, as a result, silence will amount to presumed consent.
Furthermore, people worry that, as family members, they will not have the power to veto the donation of their relative’s organs if he or she has not opted out.
The Welsh Liberal Democrats are committed to addressing these concerns and ensuring that any future opt-out system would be humane and dignified.
In the new year, my party will be exploring the option of creating a legal underpinning to protect the rights of the family. This is something which I believe deserves further clarification, if the Bill is to become law, and something which I hope will help to reassure those with reservations about an opt-out organ donation system.
Wales has the chance to lead the way with the Human Transplantation (Wales) Bill and demonstrate to the rest of the UK that such a legislative change has the potential to make a real difference to many people’s lives.