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Death Penalty Expert Talks About Organ Donation Dilemma in Ohio

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Ohio Gov. John Kasich’s decision to put death row inmate Ronald Phillips' execution on hold for now, while medical experts explore the option of organ donation for the condemned man, isn’t the first time this ethics question has come up for debate.

Monday, November 18, 2013 at 9:32 am

The Death Penalty Information Center tracks executions in all of the nation’s 50 states. And in an interview with Ohio Public Radio’s Jo Ingles, the center’s executive director Richard Dieter says while this isn’t the first time the issue has been considered, it does have an unusual distinction.

DIETER: “Well, what certainly makes this unusual is that the stay was granted just less than 24 hours before the execution. There have been a couple of death row inmates who have been allowed to donate an organ, but this really came close to removing that possibility, because this was not a case of donating an organ during the execution. Rather it’s a kidney from which the person can do at least fine or well enough without one kidney, and so it puts him back in sort of a prison context rather than an execution context, and allows time for consideration of this issue. So this is really close."

INGLES: “So is there a consensus in these kinds of cases? Is organ donation possible?”

DIETER: “Well, it is possible. There’s certainly a consensus, I'd say almost an unanimity in the U.S., that vital organs and organs to be donated during execution, that would be forbidden. You can’t give consent or you can't use a human life or involve doctors during an execution. There are just too many problems with voluntariness and ethics to allow that. But for a prisoner, for the moment consider them not on death row, to donate an organ or to give blood or even to work in the community, these are things that we do allow some interaction, and not all rights are removed just because you are in prison."

INGLES: “So you are referring though to organs like kidneys or things that people could still survive without. You're not talking about organs that must be harvested upon death, right?”

DIETER: “That’s correct because otherwise, you’d be in a position of what if a person is waiting for this organ and the execution gets stayed, do you go ahead with it anyhow because a life would be saved? There’s too many pressures on the system at that moment, and to think that someone can intelligently make a decision about their organs…are they going to change their mind if they get a day reprieve or something…and the involvement of doctors would be problematic as well. So non-vital organs by someone not close to execution I think is at least possible…And I think that’s all that the governor is asking for at this point. Not necessarily that it will be granted, but that it is going to be possibly allowed, considered and weigh the possible pros and cons"

The Death Penalty Information Center’s Richard Dieter says issues like these raise ethical questions that take some time to contemplate. Inmate Ronald Phillips wants to give his kidney and liver to family members then donate other organs to strangers. Dieter says this stay indicates some of those donations could be possible.

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