Highland MSP agrees the principle of a ‘soft’ opt-out system for organ donation

Labour’s Shadow Health Minister, David Stewart, yesterday backed the general principles of a new Bill which would introduce a ‘soft opt-out’ system for organ donation.

At present, people must opt in to the system to donate their organs for transplants after they die. Under the proposals published at the Scottish Parliament, it will be assumed people were in favour of donation unless they have stated otherwise.

A total of 107 MSPs backed the move, Lib Dem MSP Mike Rumbles voted against and SNP MSPs Christine Grahame and Colin Beattie abstained.

Mr Stewart, who represents the Highlands and Islands, described the legislation as ‘crucial’ asking: “How do we raise the level of organ donations in Scotland to match the needs of those desperately awaiting transplantation?”

He explained that 426 patients died in the UK whilst on the transplant list or within one year of removal from the list in 2018.

Scotland has the highest percentage of people on the Organ Donation Register in the UK, but the lowest actual organ donation in terms of rates per million. Family authorisation is also low in Scotland.

“The key issue is the gap between those who wish to donate organs and the number who actually go on to join the Organ Donation Register – 80% support donation, but only 52% have signed up to the donation register,” he told MSPs during the debate.

In simplistic terms, the purpose of the Bill is to bridge this divide – to encourage those who support organ donation but haven’t registered on the Organ Donation Register, to have their wishes respected.

Mr Stewart said: “We know from background research by British Heart Foundation that people living in countries with soft opt out were 17-29% more willing to donate their organs.

“In general terms, soft opt out means that unless the deceased has expressed a wish in life not to be an organ donor, consent will be assumed. Of the top 10 countries in terms of donors per million, nine have an opt out system.

“This brings us to Spain who lead the world league table for organ donations. We took evidence at the Health and Sport Committee on this point.

“Why are they so successful? Three main reasons:
• Comprehensive networks of transplant co-ordinators,
• Donor detection programme,
• Greater provision of intensive care beds.”

Mr Stewart added that Scotland must increase the number of intensive care beds to allow for the increased number of organ donation care.

He also highlighted areas where the Bill can be strengthened and agreed with Andrew Tickell of Glasgow Caledonian University when he said:
“the failure to put the rights of family members and duties of doctors on a statutory footing appears even more problematic.”

During the debate he told MSPs about his friend Gary, who is in his mid-fifties and lives in Fife.

“Nearly two years ago, he was given the gift of life by a crucially needed heart transplant. Prior to that, he was on the transplant list for 12 months and had a pacemaker. But he was slowly deteriorating – without the transplant he would have died.

“Gary cannot praise enough the dedicated support of the nursing staff at the Golden Jubilee. He said to me, ‘it was a matter of life or death’”

Mr Stewart said: “This is a vitally important piece of legislation which will improve Scotland’s position in international league of organ donation and will literally be a matter of life and death for many Scots, like my friend Gary – desperately in need of a life-saving organ donation.”