In all that has been going on this year, both medical and economic, one important change in the law has not received the publicity it otherwise might have. In May 2020 organ donation changed to an ‘opt out system’. The effect of this change is that if you’re not from an excluded group (those under the age of 18; people who lack the mental capacity; visitors to England, and those not living here voluntarily; people who have lived in England for less than 12 months before their death) and have not confirmed whether you want to be an organ donor; it will be considered that you agree to donate an organ when you die. As the NHS has no age limit on becoming an organ donor there is no deadline for a decision to be made by you.
You of course still have the choice about whether or not you wish to become a donor. Post death, decisions based on faith, belief and culture will continue to be respected. Families will also continue to be consulted.
The change in law is needed as even with impressive progress in organ donation over the past decade, there is still a worrying shortage of donors. There just are not enough organs available for all the people in need. Nearly 4,000 transplants were arranged in 2019/20 but there are currently around 6,000 people on the UK Transplant Waiting List. Last year over 350 people died while waiting for a transplant.
It is understood that only around one third of people have told their family members they want to donate. England has one of the lowest organ donation consent rates after death in Europe.
The change is likely to have a huge impact. A similar law has already existed in Wales since 2015 and the law is due to change in Scotland in autumn 2020. Wales now has the highest consent rate in the UK: 77%, which is up from 58% in 2015 when their legal organ donation change took place.
In the UK, three people die every day due to a lack of a suitable organ donor. One donor has the potential to donate up to nine organs.
It is hoped that moving forward, once the impact of the legal change is realised and public awareness increases, similar increases will be seen in England and Scotland, with hundreds of lives saved each year.
It is now more important than ever that wishes are recorded and that conversations with family are had with respect to individual preferences about organ donation. Making clear your wishes in a will is a good place to start. However, even if wishes are expressed in your will and a donor card is held, it is possible that an objection by a family member could prevent your wishes being carried out after death. The best way to ensure that your wishes are respected is to speak to those that you are close to about your wishes and ask them to respect those wishes.