A couple of weeks ago the assembly had a debate on organ donation in Northern Ireland and discussed the option of presumed consent as a mechanism to increase organ donation rates. Edwin Poots called for a public debate on the issue. The issues in this are complex. Presumed consent may substantially increase the number of organs available for transplantation since although a majority of people state a willingness to donate their organs following death only a minority are registered donors. The statistics are not entirely clear, however, and countries with presumed consent do not necessarily have significantly higher donation rates (see “Can parallels be drawn from the EU?” from this article). The high rate of organ donation in Spain is not merely related to their position on consent. Furthermore there are concerns that presumed consent may effectively equal no consent.
In recent years there has been an acceptance of organ donation from non beating heart organ donors. There is a simplified wikipedia explanation of this here and it is not a practice without ethical problems though examples of the practice may allay many of the ethical concerns.
The fundamental issue remains that we have an increasing number of people who would benefit from organ transplantation yet the number of transplants has remained relatively static over the last two decades. Much of the lack of rise is from entirely good reasons: traditionally road traffic accident victims provided many of the transplanted organs yet the improvements in vehicle safety and medical care have improved survival from such accidents. This is of course to be welcomed but it does mean that there will be fewer organs available for transplant. Other advances in medical care have reduced potential donor rates and although obvious it must be remembered that for most organ donations someone else has had to die.
It is also the case that a change in the law regarding consent here in Northern Ireland will not have an enormous effect on transplantation rates as the transplant network is all British Isles and indeed pan European. It is, however, a reasonable debate to have. The information on how to register to become a donor is here and the transplant rates for the last year are here.