Regardless of creed, race or nationality, all people should have a set of basic rights (natural rights, unalienable rights — the name isn’t important). One of those rights should be ownership of one’s body. And in all of the discussion of creating a socialized healthcare system in the United States, measures to protect this ownership seem to have been dismissed as unnecessary. But similar healthcare programs in the United Kingdom have given rise to a serious breach in this personal right — and U.S. politicians should consider this breach as they consider the future of U.S. healthcare.

In Britain, organ donation has recently become a controversial topic. According to the BBC News, over 8,000 patients in Britain need transplants of some kind (Private transplants to be banned, 07/31/2009). To try to fill the need, Britain has enacted some extreme laws. Now, organ donation in Britain will work differently than here in the U.S. The U.S. uses an “opt-in” system — those wishing to donate sign up to add their names to the national list of donors. In contrast, as BBC News clarified, the U.K. will use an “opt-out” system, where people must have their names removed from the national list of donors. If they do not opt out, they are automatically considered donors.

Even more outrageously, the U.K. system also takes away the right of donors to choose who they donate their organs to after they die, according to the Wall Street Journal (U.K. to ban private organ transplants, 07/31/2009). Formerly, a British organ donor was allowed to make a private donation without going through the national system. Now, the deceased are entered into the pool of donors without any say as to where their body parts will go. According to the Times of London, the former chairman of the British Government’s organ donation taskforce said that it “seeks to make more organs available for U.K. residents … While I found no evidence of wrongdoing in the way organs are allocated to patients, there is a perception that private payments may unfairly influence access to transplant, so they must be banned” (Ban on foreigners flying in for private transplants, 07/31/2009).

While the idea of total medicinal equality may appeal to some people, it gives no incentive to donate organs after death. People are more motivated to offer up an organ if they know someone who needs a transplant. Donors should be able to give an organ to a person of their choosing. And while that may mean there are fewer organs for the long list of those needing transplants, if people can’t decide where their organs go, they might simply choose to opt out of the system, meaning that donations might not be as forthcoming.

In the U.S., donors have control over their bodies even after legal death — and they deserve this power. The U.S. refers to the practice of donors choosing the recipients of their organs as “gifts.” It ensures the right to donate organs for a chosen use following death, whether it be science, medicine or any other use.

Brits have lost this control. Under the British system, donors won’t be able to decide what should be done with their bodies after their death (should a circumstance that allows for organ harvesting arise), no matter what their will might stipulate. Wills are created to maintain control of assets — including the body — after death. And yet these wills could now be void.

At this point, one could argue: Why don’t British citizens simply opt out of the system? And that’s a valid question. What the British government is trying to do is put the law in place and hope many will be too lazy to opt out. And maybe this is a fair punishment for laziness, but it’s unethical that Brits should have to take that kind of action to remove themselves from an unfair system to regain control of their bodies.

I don’t pretend that all my natural rights are protected day-in and day-out by my own government here in the U.S. But at least in America I know that I still own my own body (for the near future at least), which is more than I can say for our British brethren.

Ed McPhee can be reached at emcphee@umich.edu.

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