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California Prisoner Who Received First Heart Transplant Dies

A California man, who is believed to be the first prisoner in the nation to receive a heart transplant while incarcerated, died last December from complications relating to the operation. The man, whose name has never been released, was serving a 14-year sentence for robbing a Los Angeles convenience store, but had been suffering from a viral heart infection from the time of his sentencing in 1996.

Though according to a prison spokesman the prisoner died because "his body was rejecting the heart," it is not clear whether he received proper and adequate post-surgery medical care from the California Department of Corrections.

The transplant itself, which took place on January 3, 2002, set off a nationwide controversy and debate over whether a prisoner should be eligible to receive an organ transplant when so many "law-abiding" citizens are on waiting lists. But both medical professionals and organ transplant centers alike say that their decisions about who gets organs depend solely on medical protocols, not social opinion. It was estimated that at the time of the prisoner's surgery there were over 4,000 patients on the waiting list for a donor heart.

Critics also cite the cost of the prisoner's medical care, $1.25 million, which includes recent post-operative care at Stanford, as a further reason to deny prisoners the same level of medical care as free citizens.

Prison officials were apologetic, indicating that the only reason they provided the prisoner with the transplant was because they were forced to. "The U.S. Supreme Court requires us to supply community-level health care," said CDC spokeswoman Margaret Bach. "We had no choice. It was not our decision to make." Bach further stated that had the state blocked the operation and the prisoner died as a result, the state would have faced a lawsuit it surely would have lost.

The California legislature has now begun to take steps to prevent or limit the ability of prisoners to receive organ transplants. In January 2003, freshman California Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Salinas), whose own father died while awaiting a transplant, introduced SB 38. That bill would allow potential donors to check a box to indicate their desire to not allow their organs to go to anyone incarcerated in jail or prison.

Scholars and other critics vehemently denounced the bill. "The statement that someone should not get [an organ] because they are not worthy is very disturbing," said Guy Micco, director of the Center for Medicine, the Humanities and Law at the University of California, Berkeley. "Because that puts value on one life compared to another."

Others warned of the "slippery slope" created by such legislation. Former Butte County prosecutor Shawn Stinson, who estimates that he

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