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Utah First to Explicitly Allow Organ Donation by Prisoners

Utah First to Explicitly Allow Organ Donation by Prisoners


On March 28, 2013, Utah became the first state to explicitly allow prisoners to donate their organs if they die while incarcerated, a controversial move that pits some prisoner-rights advocates against thousands in need of organ transplants.

"I think, why not?" says Joanne Ford, 48, a Utah prisoner among hundreds who have signed up thus far to donate their organs. "If you have healthy organs, why would you not be able to help someone else?"

To many, using prisoners–vulnerable to coercive efforts by prison administrators and staff–to harvest organs is unethical. Which is why most states accept organs from prisoners only in rare and strictly controlled circumstances, even while nearly 118,000 people nationwide, according to the United Network for Organ Sharing, are waiting for transplanted hearts, kidneys, livers and other organs. [See: PLN, April, 2014, p.52].

Before Utah Gov. Gary Herbert signed the law, no state allowed organ donation from death-row prisoners. Utah's law, however, does not discriminate between general population prisoners and those on death row, which opens the door for other states to follow suit.

Utah's law was reportedly inspired by the 2010 death of prisoner Ronnie Lee Gardner, a convicted murderer who wanted to donate his organs but was prohibited from doing so.

"How disappointing is that, there's somebody who maybe wants to atone for his sins in some way," says Republican state Rep. Steve Eliason, who secured the bill's unanimous passage after submitting it too late in last year's legislative session to be considered. "It's a waste of perfectly good organs that could help others."

Since Herbert signed the law, records of prisoners who have chosen to donate have been forwarded to Intermountain Donor Services, the agency that oversees organ donations in Utah, and added to the state donor registry.

"Anytime we can expand the donor pool or make people aware of organ donation, we're supportive of that," says Alex McDonald, a spokesman for Intermountain.

Ford, who is serving time for methamphetamine sales and possession, says that drug abuse might have made many of her organs–especially her liver –unusable after she dies.

"There still may be one or two things that could still possibly be used," she says. "I feel like I owe society a big debt. I caused a great damage out there. I feel good about this."


Sources:, NBC News

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