Allowing death row inmates to donate organs.

1. The death penalty is immoral, barbaric, cruel and unusual, and has no place in any civilized society. It’s shameful that we use it in the United States, and it should be shocking to anyone with a conscience and a moral center.

2. The United States has an ugly history of abusing inmates. We imprison about 1 in every 100 American citizens. We imprison more people than any other nation ever has in recorded history. Our prison system is out of control — it’s a cash cow, and it’s nearly its own private industry (with the bill footed by our tax dollars), and it exploits prisoners for free labor. We over-use punitive punishment for minor crimes. We certainly over-use the death penalty even for the most serious crimes.

3. However, our prison system exists, and the death penalty is (unfortunately) not going away any time soon. Given that, prisoners on death row should have the option — the totally freely-made opinion, without any incentives on either end — to donate their organs after death. That, of course, requires counseling, and it requires that they not receive any benefit for organ donation. But there’s no reason not to allow people on death row the choice to donate.

And this article is maybe the most intense thing you’ll read today.

58 comments for “Allowing death row inmates to donate organs.

  1. random sheepless lurker
    March 6, 2011 at 7:12 pm

    Well, except that, you know. Some of us won’t be reading it because we refuse to pay the NYT for content that should be free.

    • March 6, 2011 at 7:20 pm

      That’s odd… I don’t pay for content on the NYTimes website, and I can still view the article. Hmm.

      Although — and this is the last I’m going to say about this, because it’s a derail — I think it’s bullshit to think that the Times’ content “should be free.” Why should it be free, exactly? A lot of people labor to produce that content. The devaluing of journalism is part of what leads to situations where American newspapers and media outlets can’t afford to have reporters on the ground in places outside of the United States, and can’t afford to adequately cover important news stories. Fox News and other politically-fixated media are able to make a buck by providing commentary but no actual reporting. That’s a dangerous standard to set industry-wide. And while I am all for access to information, and I do wish the Times site was totally free, at the same time someone has to pay the reporters who are actually doing the work of covering these events and writing about them. And I frankly think it’s insulting to suggest that the NYT content “should” be totally free. Ideally it would be totally free because advertisers or whoever else would cover the necessary expenses, but that model isn’t working. And it’s really obnoxious to repeatedly read comments where the hard work that journalists do is totally devalued.

      /rant.

  2. March 6, 2011 at 7:19 pm

    random sheepless lurker: Well, except that, you know. Some of us won’t be reading it because we refuse to pay the NYT for content that should be free.  

    That’s weird – I definitely don’t pay NYT for anything and the article was fully available for me.

  3. Jillian
    March 6, 2011 at 7:39 pm

    I haven’t read the article (currently viewing on my mobile device) but does it address what current methods of execution – electrocution or lethal injection – do to the viability of the organs?

  4. March 6, 2011 at 7:43 pm

    Jillian: I haven’t read the article (currently viewing on my mobile device) but does it address what current methods of execution – electrocution or lethal injection – do to the viability of the organs?  

    Yes, in terms of lethal injection.

    From the article:

    The main explanation is that Oregon and most other states use a sequence of three drugs for lethal injections that damages the organs. But Ohio and Washington use a larger dose of just one drug, a fast-acting barbiturate that doesn’t destroy organs. If states would switch to a one-drug regimen, inmates’ organs could be saved.

    No reference is given for where this information comes from. I have no medical insights to offer.

  5. Alison
    March 6, 2011 at 7:56 pm

    Word on your rant, Jill. Agreed – saying all news everywhere should be free is ridiculous and insulting to those who work in the field.

    On the piece itself, I totally support the idea that they should be able to donate organs. Donation is SO needed in this country, and the idea that so many organs which might otherwise be donated are going to waste is despicable. And yeah, as the article states, there are some obstacles, but they can be got around…getting rid of the fucking death penalty being the best way, but… *sigh*

  6. Juke
    March 6, 2011 at 8:05 pm

    Regarding access to the article, a lot of NY times articles require you to create an account with nytimes.com. It’s free, so I’m not quite sure what it gains them, but I’m logged on and am able to see it fine.

  7. March 6, 2011 at 8:12 pm

    That article tests the limits of forgiveness. I think the reason that prisoners are unable to donate organs, should they choose to do so, is more because of our own bitterness towards them then anything else.

  8. Azalea
    March 6, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    If they could wouldn’t that open the door for terms like “blood organs” where people against the Death Penalty would feel that the immorality and stigma of the Death Penalty was attached to the organs? I thought there existed groups who are against the death penalty and fight againstthings like this where society benefits from the inmates’ deaths.

  9. Safiya Outlines
    March 6, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    Having read a bit more about Christian Longo (the inmate in question, major *Trigger Warning* if you decide to google him), I really wouldn’t want his organs, however irrational that seems, my revulsion for his crimes is too great.

  10. March 6, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    [Trigger warning for sadism] This is one of those be-careful-what-you-ask-for things. A couple of decades ago, before the Internet, I remember reading a letter to the editor of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, who recommended that condemned prisoners have organs taken from them (without their consent) one at a time until they could no longer survive, then be put to death, thereby somehow “redeeming” them for the sake of all those theoretically “good” people out there. Made me sick then, makes me sick now. And with people like Bobby Franklin running around loose ( http://thinkprogress.org/2011/02/23/bobby-franklin-miscarriage-naturally/ ), we have our advance notice that the sadistic nut-jobs of the world are alive and well. Unfortunately.

  11. kung fu lola
    March 6, 2011 at 9:10 pm

    The nature of Christian Longo’s crimes (he annihilated his family when his massive, overwhelming debts, and affair were exposed) tells this armchair psychologist that he is probably deeply narcissistic. This is just another way for him to make things all about him. I think he should die believing that he’s been denied permission to donate his organs, and then they should be harvested anyway.

  12. March 6, 2011 at 10:19 pm

    Alison:</strong.

    Donation is SO needed in this country, and the idea that so many organs which might otherwise be donated are going to wasteis despicable. And yeah, as the article states, there are some obstacles, but they can be got around…getting rid of the fucking death penalty being the best way, but…

    If they eliminate the death penalty, there won’t be any prisoner organs to donate.

  13. March 6, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    The quoted article seems reasonable, and it’s easy to believe the author is sincere. But changing the policy in his case opens the door to changing it for other cases. That portends great dangers and surprisingly little benefit.

    First, the number of death-row prisoners who are executed each year in the US – though shamefully high – is relatively low in absolute terms. Since reinstatement of the death penalty in the 1976, executions peaked at under 100 per year in the late 90s, and have hovered around 50 per year for the last 5 years. Since many prisoners will be unwilling or medically ineligible to donate organs even if their prison policies allowed it, the total number of possible donations from this source must be negligible.

    Of course, it’s possible that changing the policies regarding prisoner donations could free up donations from prisoners who die by other means than execution. With about 1.6 million people currently incarcerated (other than in juvenile facilities or local jails), that would expand the potential donor pool hugely. But even among that large number, there are only a few thousand deaths per year, and two-thirds of those are by way of heart disease, cancer, AIDS, or liver disease, which in most cases would preclude donation on medical grounds (see the Department of Justice report <a href="http://bjs.ojp.usdoj.gov/content/pub/pdf/mcdsp04.pdf&quot;Medical Causes of Death in State Prisons, 2001-2004; state prisoners are about 85% of all prisoners). That leaves a potential donor pool of a just thousand or so dying prisoners a year – many of them also elderly or otherwise medically ineligible – only some of whom might be willing to volunteer as donors anyway.

    Given that the general population agrees to organ donation at very low rates, it seems likely that only a fraction of prisoners would agree to do so if asked, and then only a fraction of those would be likely to die under circumstances that would make organ harvesting possible (since the organ harvest would have to be done at the prison in many cases). Note that the entire US population of over 300 million generates about 8,000 organ donors per year; that would mean about 40 – 50 donations per year from prisoners if prisoners can and do donate at the same rate as the general population. The “advantage” to harvesting organs from execution victims is that the death is planned in advance, so arrangements can be made; for deaths in the general prison population, the likelihood of successful harvest from an inmate who had volunteered to donate and was medically eligible seems very low.

    All in all, then, it seems as if the number of successful organ harvests from prisoners could be, at most, a few a year from planned executions, and not many more than that from the general prison population. That marginal benefit – increasing the annual organ donation total by a few dozen – would require subjecting the entire population of 1.6 million prisoners to the potential for coercion, and to the distortion of healthcare priorities in a system that is already inadequate and often abusive.

    Even to meet those numbers would require obtaining consent from a population that is inherently subject to the most extreme deprivation of autonomy possible short of slavery or torture. (It is generally agreed that prisoners cannot give meaningful consent to anything, because the implicit demand conveyed by a request for consent, from wardens who hold absolute and literally life-or-death authority over them, is irresistible. What do you think would happen to prisoners who refused to give “the gift of life”? Do you think it might possibly affect their treatment by the warden or guards? Do you think it might possibly affect their parole hearings? Would the prisoners at least not fear that it would, and thus be pressured into donating whether they want to or not?) And it would inevitably introduce the possibility of trading organ donation for privileges or release (Gov. Haley Barbour just released two sisters from prison on the specific condition that one had to donate a kidney to the other. What would happen if organ donations became routine practice in prisons?)

    For all these reasons, most ethicists have felt that the overwhelming potential for abuse, and the relatively minimal likely benefit, argue against relaxing the rules against such donations. The arguments in favor of prisoner organ donation are obvious, and they make sense considered in isolation. But the larger context includes very significant possibilities of abuse – not to mention the long history of prisoner abuse that has already been documented. Re-opening that door, especially for what is likely to be only a few justified cases, seems far too dangerous.

  14. March 6, 2011 at 11:26 pm

    I was curious and Googled the inmate’s name, and found this article about him in Esquire, written by a former NYT journalist whose identity Longo assumed while in hiding in Mexico.

    It’s pretty interesting. It’s right here.

    Trigger warning for descriptions of the fucking horrible things he did.

  15. Nigel Throckmorton
    March 6, 2011 at 11:29 pm

    If you don’t mind my asking, what is a “moral center”? Is it a center of the brain, like the “pain center” or “pleasure center”? Do people who support the death penalty do so because their “moral centers” aren’t functioning properly? Could we scan people’s brains with an MRI machine while asking them to think about the death penalty, and see their “moral centers” light up like Christmas trees?

    Or perhaps you were just going for emphasis by adding “moral center” after “conscience.” Saying “It’s shameful that we use it in the United States, and it should be shocking to anyone with a conscience” would not really drive the point home enough; only a sentence with the structure “…it should be shocking to anyone with an X or a Y” would be capable of emphasizing and therefore fully articulating the point you were trying to make.

    The sentence probably took the following form: “It’s shameful that we use it in the United States, and it should be shocking to anyone with a conscience.” But just before you clicked “post”, you stopped. “I wonder if there’s any way I could really emphasize that point I made about the depravity of those who support the death penalty,” you thought to yourself. “All I need is a synonym for ‘conscience.'” Upon realizing that you could not immediately think of one, you went to Thesaurus.com and tried to look one up, to no avail. So you made the most horrific mistake any writer could ever make: you decided to coin one yourself.

    My money’s on door number two. So which was it?

    • March 6, 2011 at 11:40 pm

      My money is, you are a pedantic asshole who is not nearly as intelligent as you seem to think you are. Also: “Moral center” isn’t a term I made up, nor one I found after using thesaurus.com. It is, in fact, a fairly commonly-used term.

      Also, how long did it take you to write that comment? May I suggest a more productive hobby? I hear knitting is fun.

  16. March 6, 2011 at 11:50 pm

    For fuck’s sake, Nigel.

    Jill: Knitting is SUPER fun.

  17. Florence
    March 6, 2011 at 11:54 pm

    kung fu lola: The nature of Christian Longo’s crimes (he annihilated his family when his massive, overwhelming debts, and affair were exposed) tells this armchair psychologist that he is probably deeply narcissistic. This is just another way for him to make things all about him. I think he should die believing that he’s been denied permission to donate his organs, and then they should be harvested anyway.  

    I have no opinion on what should happen to this guy or his guts, but I also got the narcissism vibe and get squicked out whenever folks like him get a soapbox and a loudspeaker. /sidecomment

  18. Florence
    March 6, 2011 at 11:56 pm

    P.S. Knitting is both fun AND productive. Might try one or the other sometime, Nigel.

  19. Nigel Throckmorton
    March 7, 2011 at 12:07 am

    Also: “Moral center” isn’t a term I made up, nor one I found after using thesaurus.com. It is, in fact, a fairly commonly-used term.

    Fairly commonly used, you say? That must be why I had never heard the term used before! Apparently, I have spent far too much of my life reading higher literature to have become acquainted with it.

    You see, Jill, upon first encountering the term “moral center”, I wondered whether it might enable us to render angst obsolete, because it is in considering the former’s referent that we are brought before the nothing; it is when Dasein reflects upon the meaning of “moral center” that the nothing is brought to the fore and makes itself known. Had this in fact been the case, the term would have been quite significant. This is why it piqued my interest, although it now seems that this piquing was, quite unfortunately, a bit premature.

  20. Nigel Throckmorton
    March 7, 2011 at 12:21 am

    P.S. Knitting is both fun AND productive. Might try one or the other sometime, Nigel.

    Knitting is for the unrefined. It is the pastime of the commonfolk; it is the enterprise of οἱ πολλοί, as the Ancient Greek philosophers would have stated it.

  21. Florence
    March 7, 2011 at 12:22 am

    Most consider masturbating in public unrefined, but you don’t seem to mind it at all.

  22. March 7, 2011 at 12:41 am

    There are also many fun flash games on Kongregate, Nigel! Perhaps you should peruse them!

    Alternately, if you are so Massively Intelligent™, you could put those brains to good use, and figure out how we can convert to alternate forms of energy, or solve world hunger, or something! Trolling feminist blogs for fun and prof… uh… the hell of it surely must be beneath you.

  23. March 7, 2011 at 1:41 am

    Well, that was hilarious, but the show’s over now, Nigel! Goodbye.

  24. L
    March 7, 2011 at 2:03 am

    Nigel sure talks a lot for someone who doesn’t really say anything..

  25. haley
    March 7, 2011 at 2:25 am

    I am weary of supporting the proposal to let Prisoners donate their organs. I support organ donations in general and sympathize with prisoners who want to give back to society. However……

    I don’t want to support the growth of the Prison Industrial Complex. Many prisons are private and there is a push to privatize the rest; it’s a big business and a lot wealth is extracted from cheap(or free) prison labor. I fear that organ “harvesting” of prisoners will be the logical extension of the prison business model.

    And that idea is very disturbing to me.

  26. March 7, 2011 at 3:59 am

    This is a terrible idea, that will only serve to further legitimize the death penalty. It could also be used as an argument for expediting executions. A system like this would be open to abuse. China is just one example.

  27. Medea
    March 7, 2011 at 5:38 am

    Nigel Throckmorton: So you made the most horrific mistake any writer could ever make: you decided to coin one yourself.

    That was the sentence I had to read twice to make sure I had understood it correctly.

  28. Kaz
    March 7, 2011 at 6:12 am

    Did I seriously just read a comment in which someone used the term “hoi polloi”, not just in all seriousness, but written in Greek? In reference to knitting?

    You get all the interesting commentators here, I swear.

    As far as the actual topic of the post is concerned, I’d like to second what Kevin says; I’m very worried about pressure for donation given that prison isn’t precisely an ideal, coercion-free environment (this sentence may be a severe understatement.) Also, the article talking about changing the way the state kills people in order to do least possible damage to their organs is just, words cannot even begin to describe my disgust and horror here. I’m just not getting past “why does the death penalty EXIST”.

  29. speedbudget
    March 7, 2011 at 8:09 am

    I don’t think Mr. Longo’s use of the sisters as a valuable example is a good idea. Those sisters were in prison for life for a massively petty crime and should have never been there to begin with. The sister’s release on the condition that she donate her kidney is a major, major ethical problem. To say her release is connected to her submitting to major surgery (whether she wanted to do so or not) is problematic. For Mr. Longo to compare his situation, of having murdered his entire family and hence being sentenced to death for it, to that of two sisters put in jail for life for not even stealing a couple of a bucks from someone else and having others substantiate that they didn’t do it is heinous. And it still glosses over the problem of the sister being coerced to relinquish her organ in order to obtain the freedom she should never have had taken from her.

    I don’t know if that’s as clearly state as it could be. I got pretty upset reading that.

  30. Odin
    March 7, 2011 at 9:21 am

    People’s concern over issues of consent and coercion make a lot of sense given the problems with our prison system, but it also seems wrong to deny healthy prisoners’ requests to be organ donors, especially given that getting a death sentence rather than life in prison correlates with race and poverty.

    Is there a way that the requests to be an organ donor could be handled in such a way that those in a position to pressure, punish, or give preferential treatment to prisoners not know any individual prisoner’s status, or at least not until some short time before that individual’s scheduled execution?

  31. Kierra
    March 7, 2011 at 9:25 am

    Also, the article talking about changing the way the state kills people in order to do least possible damage to their organs is just, words cannot even begin to describe my disgust and horror here.

    This probably won’t make you feel much better about it. But the one-drug method (high dose of quick-acting painkiller) that they are talking about has much less chance of something going wrong (and consequently much more humane) than the 3-drug cocktail method (painkiller + paralytic + drug to stop the heart). The one-drug method is the same method that is used to euthanize cats and dogs (a procedure where the patient’s experience is considered important). The 3-drug method, by contrast, is mostly used because it’s quicker and considered easier to watch for the observers, not because it’s any better for the prisoner.

  32. Kathleen
    March 7, 2011 at 9:31 am

    What Kevin T. Keith and haley and Matt Cornell said. I am really surprised to see Jill get behind this.

    Also, fwiw, the Toronto Globe and Mail just had an article in Saturday’s paper (like the Sunday paper, for Canadians) about how setting up a legit system of organ buying and selling would be a good idea. Call me paranoid, but this feels like a coordinated pr campaign: harvesting dead prisoners’ organs! Totally ethically okay! Paying poor people for their kidneys! Totally ethically okay! Of course, the readership of the G & M and the NYTimes will only ever be on one damn side of any of those “totally ethically okay” exchanges.

    Yeah, no.

  33. roymacIII
    March 7, 2011 at 10:01 am

    I second (or third or whatever) being really uncomfortable with this. While I’m 100% in support of efforts to increase desperately need organ donation, I’m highly skeptical of any plans involving prisoners. I just think that, given the current state of the prison system in the United States, the likelihood of abuse and coercion runs runs really high. Prisoners in this country are already subjected to a lot of really heinous treatment, and people are constantly looking for ways to make prison worse for people, as though systematically abusing someone and treating them in unethical, patently immoral ways is somehow going to turn their lives around (not that rehabilitation is our real goal, here, anyway).

    If we lived in a society that were radically different from the one we live in, I’d be all in favor. Of course, if we lived in that society, I don’t think we’d have the death penalty at all, so it’d be a moot point.

  34. March 7, 2011 at 10:23 am

    Am also of the opinion that incidences of organ harvesting would shoot through the roof, particularly due to “accidental deaths” of prisoners who were “on death row anyway, so why should anyone care?” A creepy scenario.

    Christian Longo’s story is also extremely horrific. Thanks for the Esquire link, April.

    Nigel, on the other hand, is a fun guy! I don’t like knitting myself, but I always recommend getting into pig-racing to dudes like Nigel. It tends to be an outdoor event, so you can enjoy the fresh air and those nimble pigs.

  35. Kathleen
    March 7, 2011 at 11:09 am

    This strikes me as a pretty feminist issue, in that both prisoners (especially death row inmates, those convicted of the worst crimes) and poor people are being set up to be exceptionally generous with their bodies just because of their statuses: in the first case, because they are in the position of “bad people” and so are supposed to be perhaps more ready to offer themselves than “regular people” are; in the second, because money is an effective way of making poor people do with their bodies what most rich people won’t.

    There are people who sign donor cards as a generous act and there are people who become living donors as a generous act. Which is great, but exceptional. As a society, I think we have we should protect everyone’s propensity to be only moderately generous with their bodies; we shouldn’t target vulnerable people and oblige them to be exceptionally generous with their bodies (hello, ladies. Hello, abortion rights. Hello, prostitution debates. hello, feminism).

    This also means that as a society we can more genuinely recognize true altruism: voluntary organ donation, or the periods of self-abnegation that make for successful child-rearing — this stuff is feminist stuff.

  36. Kathleen
    March 7, 2011 at 11:21 am

    I also — this is where the “choice” language is such a mess. Because you can get the counter-argument about why shouldn’t poor people be free to choose to sell their kidneys? Why shouldn’t prisoners be free to choose to redeem themselves with their body parts? Just like women are free to choose abortions? And if you don’t want to give prisoners and poor people “choices” that you think are wrong, why can’t women’s choices be taken away if people think they are choosing wrongly for the wrong reasons?

    This is why I instead used the the language of exceptional generosity above — who is being asked to be exceptionally generous? Ah, oh, right. Because the sacrifice of pregnancy and motherhood or the sacrifice of one’s tranquility knowing your child is out there being raised by someone else — all of these things disappear in the narrow debate around abortion as “choice”. Same deal with organ donation.

    The exceptional bodily generosity one “option” requires, and the assumption that certain kinds of people (prisoners, poor people, women) should offer it readily — all of that is just off the table, and then the debate is really off to the wrong races.

    (my metaphors, I like ’em mixed)

  37. Lindsay Beyerstein
    March 7, 2011 at 11:28 am

    I’m skeptical about the coercion argument. Not being allowed to donate your organs is coercion in itself. I don’t like the symbolism that the state controls a prisoner’s body even in death.

    Your punishment should end when you pay your debt to society. Some states have decided that only execution will settle the score for really heinous crimes. If you’re serious about that idea, you should agree that an executed prisoner has paid his debt to society. He should have the same right to donate his organs as anyone else.

    I don’t think coercion would be a big problem in the U.S.. The prison system has few incentives to coerce inmates one way or the other. If anything, inmate organ donation is an added hassle for authorities, and they might try to discourage it.

    If inmate organ donation is to be allowed, it should come with safeguards to insure the inmate’s privacy. Parole boards shouldn’t be allowed to know, or take into account whether a prisoner is an organ donor.

  38. ACG
    March 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm

    Lindsay touches on something I’ve been thinking about: What is the purpose of incarceration/the death penalty, and what part of those experiences are considered part of the punishment? With a person as disgustingly cruel as Longo, it’s satisfying to think, “How can we make his punishment even worse? What can we take away from him, besides his freedom and ultimately his life, that will start to make amends for this horrific thing he’s done?” God knows that, particularly after reading the Esquire piece that April linked to, I can make a mental list of ways I’d like to see him made miserable.

    But at the same time, if our goal is to have a fair and dispassionate legal system, is it right to insert a clause that says, “If your crime is horrific enough, we can punish you without limit by denying you anything you ask for”? The emotional part of me doesn’t mind the idea of Longo being deprived of just about anything in the world, but the logical part of me hates the idea of a precedent wherein a prisoner could be deprived of contact with loved ones, access to religious practice, palliative medical care, or other intangibles because their crime crossed an arbitrarily laid bright line.

  39. Kyra
    March 7, 2011 at 2:23 pm

    Is there a way that the requests to be an organ donor could be handled in such a way that those in a position to pressure, punish, or give preferential treatment to prisoners not know any individual prisoner’s status, or at least not until some short time before that individual’s scheduled execution?

    I was thinking this—ideally, if this were to happen, it should be handled in its entireity by counselors/doctors who come in from outside the prison system; the conversation and the inmate’s decision should be kept completely confidential, with the prison staff, parole boards, etc not allowed to know or even ask what the prisoner chose. Then the records would be brought out right before the execution so that the procedure can be done.

    Regarding coercion, I think there’s a fine line sometimes between protecting someone’s freedom from coercion and applying coercion in a contrary direction. Also, depending on a person’s priorities and wishes, it is often possible to create a paradoxical situation wherein coercion occurs but happens to match what the victim would have freely chosen (whether the coercion is then ignored/dismissed/unnoticed by the victim, or changes hir mind, or does not change hir mind but detracts from the experience, is dependent on the victim)—I would still call that coercion, because coercion is attempted, intended, or an unavoidable part of the situation—but ethics demand that caution be taken to make sure that the protection from that coercion does not turn out to be worse coercion—which is complicated and situation-dependent and the demands vary by person.

    Ideally, the solution is to remove as much of the possible coercion as possible from the situation, additionally remove as much of the potential fallout for making a complaint about coercion, and inform the person in question about all the potential things that could be considered coercive, answering questions and explaining what they can and can’t deal with until that person is fully cognizant of the entire situation. Then ask hir if zie feels that zie can comfortably make the decision, or wants to, (give hir the third option of not making a choice if zie feels it’s not a free choice), and if the answer is yes, let hir take hir own priorities into account and make the decision zie feels best.

    This won’t work for all potentially-coercive situations, and should not be construed as an excuse for people who DO engage in coercion (i.e. “but zie wanted it” as uttered by a prison guard or a rapist), but on some level, at some point, I lose faith with what becomes the doctrine of Protect Them From Themselves.

  40. roymacIII
    March 7, 2011 at 2:28 pm

    @Lindsay I agree with you that punishment should end when the debt is paid, but the fact is that this country has a pretty lousy history when it comes to the treatment of prisoners. Prisoners have been coerced in the past into “volunteering” for medical experiments and organ donation–as seen not only in the case of the Scott sisters, but in the administration of mefloquine to Guantanamo detainees, Dr Austin Stough’s drug tests and
    blood plasma projects in Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Alabama in the ’60s, or to the Illinois prisoners who have been forced to undergo “random computerized tomographic whole body radioactive scanners”.

    I think that we’ve been shown a lot of reasons to be very concerned that coercion is a big problem in the U.S. prison system.

  41. Kat
    March 7, 2011 at 2:33 pm

    I actually know an exonerated death row prisoner who, while on death row, was denied the right to donate a kidney to his dying brother. No other suitable donor was found, and his brother died.

    Having said that, I think, given the state of our criminal “in”justice system, people are right to have serious qualms about allowing this. We shouldn’t have a damn death penalty in the first place, and I find it appalling we are being reduced to debating such a thing at all. What does this say about us as a society?

  42. March 7, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    When the death penalty was abolished in the UK, it was done on the understanding that there would still be prisoners for whom life would mean life – not fifteen years with the possibility of parole.

    I know nothing about Christian Longo – I resisted the temptation to google for his name before writing this. So I don’t know the specifics of his crime.

    I oppose the death penalty for any and all crimes. I believe in a redemptive justice system – one which works towards ensuring that people never commit such crimes again – not a punitive one. Redemption necessarily happens while someone is alive. Once Christian Longo is dead, he can’t redeem himself – his “self” no longer exists. All he wants, as far as I can see, is to feel able to feel better about what he did before he dies. I don’t see why he should be empowered to feel better about the murders he committed by resolving to have his organs removed after his death.

    And I agree with the comments other people have made that there’s way too much hazard that death row prisoners will be coerced into “donating” their organs if this is allowed.

    • March 7, 2011 at 3:06 pm

      All he wants, as far as I can see, is to feel able to feel better about what he did before he dies. I don’t see why he should be empowered to feel better about the murders he committed by resolving to have his organs removed after his death.

      Well, because this isn’t about making Christian Longo feel better…? Maybe being locked up in a cell makes him feel better because it means he’s paying for his crimes; the answer isn’t to unlock him. This is about giving people the choice to donate their organs, in a country where healthy organs are hard to come by and there are huge waiting lists. Sure, we want to punish Longo and we don’t want to let him feel better about what he did; but I’m ok with him feeling better if it means that his organs can save many lives after he dies.

  43. March 7, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    (I realize this is slightly off topic and referencing something from way upthread)

    a lot of NY times articles require you to create an account with nytimes.com. It’s free, so I’m not quite sure what it gains them

    It gains them your email address to send spam to, and allows them to track your usage of the site so they can target ads to you when you read stories.

  44. William
    March 7, 2011 at 3:42 pm

    Heres my issue with this idea: I don’t think this is really about organs. The death penalty isn’t a bad idea in theory (in my opinion) but it seems pretty clear at this point that we can be trusted to use it fairly as a society, we can’t be trusted not to make mistakes, and in the process of trying to cover up for those two flaws we’ve ended with a system that makes the entire affair a ghoulish spectacle of deferred punishments and public points. Part of that spectacle is finding a way to kill someone in front of people who came to see someone die while sanitizing the death so that it no longer looks like a death. We try to get revenge while convincing ourselves that we aren’t doing anything uncivilized.

    Thats where this organ argument comes into play. On the one hand it gives us a tool to imagine that we’re being civilized:”well,” we might tell ourselves, “at least some will live as a result of this.” On the other hand that very method of seeming-civility puts us face to face with the revulsion we feel towards these people we have others kill in our names. By letting inmates donate their organs we humanize them, we admit to ourselves that their bodies are like ours and that there might still be good in them. That makes it very hard for us to kill them.

    If we let them donate their organs after death we imagine we might be civilized and that this isn’t about bloodlust and vengeance. If we don’t let them donate their organs we can maintain the illusion that they are the Other and that by killing them we might somehow be free of their crimes. Its an impossible bind for a society that denies why it kills and uses chemicals to banish the physical signs of death. I think even the discussion allows us to somehow become more comfortable with this thing that we do, to deny that we allow murder in our names and why that might appeal to us. We shouldn’t have the luxury.

  45. Kyra
    March 7, 2011 at 3:50 pm

    All he wants, as far as I can see, is to feel able to feel better about what he did before he dies. I don’t see why he should be empowered to feel better about the murders he committed by resolving to have his organs removed after his death.

    It will save how many lives, with the unpalatable side effect of letting him feel better about himself before his death? If someone I love needed an organ transplant to live, I wouldn’t give a flying load of cow manure what a murderer felt like in response to his enablement of their living longer, in comparison to my feelings in response to having a loved one’s life saved—and to that loved one’s feelings in response to having hir life saved, and everyone else who loves hir’s feelings in response to having hir life saved.

    He’s in prison because he took lives; I see no sense in throwing away more lives to see him suffer a little bit extra.

  46. Kyra
    March 7, 2011 at 4:11 pm

    That’s an interesting concept, William, and ties in with what was said upthread by Yonmei about a redemptive justice system (incidentally, for a truly heartwarming example thereof, check this out).

    A key part of the way our society deals with prisoners, especially the committers of the more heinous crimes, is to lock them into the label Evil, denying them the ability to have any depth that involves having good parts (or forming them, for that matter), so we don’t have to recognize them as anything but Evil. As humans are a mix of good and bad, and are capable of change to at least some extent, to deny them the ability to seek and gain redemption (different from release or forgiveness) denies their humanity.

    It also leads to things like community support behind abusers and rapists because they like the guy and refuse to believe he could do that because they don’t want to hate him, so we end up with a hardline either-or dichotomy with people wrongly placed on both sides, to the detriment of pretty much everyone.

    I think an acknowledgment of that humanity, and permission and support for those steps in the right direction (it remaining the case that for many crimes, the sentence remains the same regardless of changes of heart) is of great importance, even—perhaps especially—for prisoners.

  47. Cate
    March 7, 2011 at 4:20 pm

    How does the state handle death row criminals who donated their organs before being incarcerated? That would clear up my opinion of whether the organs are being rejected because of stigma (vv) or coercion (^^).

  48. Florence
    March 7, 2011 at 4:41 pm

    Out of curiosity, how much do organ recipients typically know about their organ donors?

  49. William
    March 7, 2011 at 11:41 pm

    Ah hell, that should read “can’t be trusted to use it fairly…”

    Anyway…

    I think an acknowledgment of that humanity, and permission and support for those steps in the right direction (it remaining the case that for many crimes, the sentence remains the same regardless of changes of heart) is of great importance, even—perhaps especially—for prisoners.

    I wonder how much of that would be rooted in our own desire to find something good in those people who do the unforgivable. I know that for me, personally, I’m not terribly concerned with allowing the person who raped me to be redeemed. I’m comfortable with, and unashamed of, the element of vengeance in my own outlook. At the same time I understand how forgiveness can be more healing for a great many people than bloodlust. I think a lot of what we do when we talk about redemption while holding people in prison is about trying to have it both ways.

    If we feel compelled to use punishment in our justice system I feel we ought not to be able to flinch away from the violence we allow others to commit in our names. I don’t like euphemisms and I don’t like things designed to respect humanity when I suspect that these measures have more to do with easing our own anxiety than actually respecting the persons who we are, after all, holding in cages at gunpoint. Thats especially true when we’re talking about killing people in the name of justice.

    I believe that the reality is that if we were to be really honest with ourselves about what we were doing with our justice system we’d put fewer people in prison and the death penalty would go away. It worries me when we use obfuscation to allow ourselves to do more to other human beings than our consciences could bear were we to be honest.

  50. Bagelsan
    March 8, 2011 at 1:58 am

    How does the state handle death row criminals who donated their organs before being incarcerated?

    That’s kinda how I think it should be dealt with; what did they want to do before prison? Everyone should be (clearly and fairly and freely) given the chance to opt out of organ donation (rather than the current opt-in system.*) And then convicts get treated exactly like everyone else; whatever they opt is what goes.

    I’m skeptical about the coercion argument. Not being allowed to donate your organs is coercion in itself.

    Nooo, it’s totally not a “right” to donate your organs. You are welcome to have your organs removed after death however you see fit, I suppose, but you certainly can’t demand that they get put into someone else!

    *This is obviously a whole ‘nother can of worms.

  51. Bagelsan
    March 8, 2011 at 2:02 am

    I think the question of “ew, do we even want organs from evil people?” is a bit of a silly question. We probably accept organs from terrible people all the time — just people who didn’t get caught! There’s no guarantee as to the moral purity of your blood donor either, or the person who lends you a dollar for the bus, or the person whose taxes help pay for your kid’s school.

  52. William
    March 8, 2011 at 8:11 am

    That’s kinda how I think it should be dealt with; what did they want to do before prison? Everyone should be (clearly and fairly and freely) given the chance to opt out of organ donation (rather than the current opt-in system.*) And then convicts get treated exactly like everyone else; whatever they opt is what goes.

    The problem I see with that is that when you’re talking about a justice system as brutal as ours you’re going to run into a not insignificant number of situations in which prisoners are allowed to die or have acces to medical care witheld because someone along the line decides that their lives are worth less than all the people who will receive their tissue donations. Death row inmates are one thing, we’ve already decided to kill them, but if you have a lot of prisoners who are going to donate organs should they happen to die I would be pretty shocked to see death rates in prison not go up.

  53. March 8, 2011 at 11:18 am

    Kyra: If someone I love needed an organ transplant to live, I wouldn’t give a flying load of cow manure what a murderer felt like in response to his enablement of their living longer, in comparison to my feelings in response to having a loved one’s life saved—and to that loved one’s feelings in response to having hir life saved, and everyone else who loves hir’s feelings in response to having hir life saved.

    But we can’t operate a justice system on the basis of “if it was someone I loved”.

    Justice is supposed to operate fairly even if no one loved the victim, even if everyone loves the criminal. It is not just that anyone should end up on death row: it is not just that someone on death row who has been sentenced to execution, should find themselves being urged towards providing their organs to keep others alive.

    It is not justice that a person should appeal to if they need someone else’s body to stay alive: it’s mercy, pity, generosity.

    It’s not that I think a prisoner can’t be merciful, pitiful, generous: it’s that I think allowing this to happen too easily opens the doors to abuse, and may be another line for people to use to justify killing people in the name of justice.

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