Legal limits of organ donation

This thread on compulsory organ donation in GD made me wonder about a legal question. Is it currently legally possible to put limits on one’s organ donation? Could I agree to donate my organs when I die, but stipulate that only members of my faith could receive them? Any of the lawyers out there have the straight dope on this?



I’m not sure about the faith stipulation but there are limits you can set. For example, you can agree to donate only your corneas but not your liver, lungs, skin, etc.

In England there was a case about a year or two ago where a man tried to insist that his organs only be used for a white person. The hospital concerned used the organs and insisted that as they had only been suitable for genetic reasons for people who happened to be white, they had used them appropriately for those persons.

After this incident, the health authorities, both providers and professional bodies, made it clear that any future racial discriminating conditions would mean that the organs would not be considered for use at all.

In the U.S., you cannot restrict organ donations. The recepient donor lists are anonymous, and decisions are based on medical criteria, including tissue type matching, urgency, time on the waiting list, and geography. The exception to this is donating while alive to a specific donor, say, my brother needs a kidney.

Thanks for the info.

I figured that hospitals would rather not use your organs rather than submit to any faith or race based stipulations you might have set. However, it surprises me that you can’t set “relative” stipulations. Just as you can donate a kidney to a relative while alive, as opposed to giving it up to the person at the head of the list, it seems as though a relative would have a good legal argument for first claim to a deceased person’s organs.

Any legal thoughts on this?


Under English law there is ‘no property in the body’ and consequently, technically, you cannot legally dispose of the body by gift or sale. You can make directions and requests, but these are merely wishes, not commands.

Pjen said:

No kidding. Is that “english” as in present-day Britain, or “english” as in english common law, and therefore (from my limited understanding) applicable in the US as well? In any case, wouldn’t that mean that if I wanted to donate a kidney to my dying brother, he’d have to get in line with the rest of the poor saps?

[off topic]
I find that a little disturbing. I don’t own my own body, to dispose of as I see fit? wtf?
[/off topic]


Re: “property of the body”:

In Canada you are not allowed to be paid for blood donations–it must be voluntary.

Presumably this is to prevent people from disadvantaging themselves by selling their organs and blood. (“Credit card debt a little high? No problem! Just sell us that kidney and you’ll be okay…” or “I just gotta sell that litre of blood to pay the rent. I know I’m blacking out at work, but it’s all I’ve got unil payday…”)

I could see where people would be pressured, by poverty of other circumstances, to sell as many body parts as they could. And it makes sense in a theoretical laissez-faire sort of way to allow this.

But once people are used to thinking of the human body as a merchandise which can then be bought and sold, ‘organlegging’ à la Larry Niven may become a lot more likely: people kidnapping people off the street for parts. Wasn’t there a recent case of a doctor taking spare parts from babies?

I suspect the whole intent of these laws is to remove the human body from the realm of commerce.

As I understand it, you are able to dispose of your property in a will. However, your body is only yours to use during life but your property rights on it cease on your death.

I think this is (English) common law, but it may have statute law attached. Not all of English common law applies in the US- subsequent statute law supercedes IIRC.

Maybe an English lawyer could comment if there is one on this board.

  1. Directed donations are possible in the US. There was a story on 60 Minutes, 48 hours, or 20/20 (I listened from another room) about 2 months ago in which a woman and man, strangers to each other, sat next to each other on a plane. He was flying to where his brother was about to be taken off of life-support after an accident; she was flying to the same city because her sister was too ill from liver failure to care for herself, but seemed to be months away from a liver transplant. After the chance encounter, the man’s family requested that his organs be donated, but asked that the liver go to the woman’s sister. After some red tape, and tests to confirm compatibility, the man’s liver was in fact given to the woman’s sister.

This is very controversial, because it meant bypassing people who were higher on the list to give the liver to the sister. But, no organs would have been donated at all had the chance encounter not occurred. Obviously, most tissue banks/transplant centers would prefer that people donate without strings or restrictions - but they are so desperate for organs that they can be flexible.

  1. Most donation forms are fairly general; families are asked to authorize unrestricted donation of all “tissue” that can be used. In addition to vital organs which are provided to recipients at “cost”, tissue banks may also harvest skin, bones, cartilage, and other tissues which is sold to the highest bidder. Since plastic surgeons doing penile enlargements can afford to pass the costs on to patients more readily than burn centers, plastic surgeons, not burn centers, get first crack at skin for grafting. Families can stipulate where non-vital organ tissues go or that only vital organs be donated.
    Read more here:

  2. Public Service Announcement: If you want your organs donated, please tell your families - a checkmark on a drivers license means nothing without your family’s consent. If you have no family, or do not want your family involved in the decision-making process, you can make out an Advance Directive stating your wishes, and make sure your usual doctor has a copy of it.