We led the way with the smoking ban and at the end of last year we did so once again by opening up a debate and asking for views on changes to the way people give consent to organ donation after death.
We have been consulting on a proposed a new system called a “soft opt-out” to organ donation. This means unless someone registers a wish not to be a donor, they will be assumed to have no objections to their organs being made available for donation, should they die in the circumstances which make organ donation a possibility. However, in our soft opt-out system, families will be involved in the decision to donate after death. The proposed new system will also give people the option of saying they do not want to be an organ donor by registering an opt-out.
This is a very sensitive issue and I know people l have strong views on what happens to them and to their loved ones after they die. Respect and dignity for people in life and death is something to which we are all deeply committed and I can assure everyone nothing in our proposals will alter the way people are cared for.
However, over the past few months, I have heard a lot of concerns about our proposals, many of which are completely wrong. People may have been scared into thinking the Welsh Government is taking ownership of people’s bodies or that we are planning to “harvest” organs or turn the people of Wales into some sort of pool of organ donors. Absolutely none of these things are true. In fact, by introducing an opt-out register, we will be increasing an individual’s ability to make their wishes clear. The actual process of organ donation is, and always will be, for a patient’s clinicians, in discussion with the family. The numbers involved are also relatively small, as few people die in circumstances that make organ donation possible (in an intensive care bed in a hospital). In all cases the deceased’s family will be involved.
We do not raise these issues to stir up controversy or for political gain. We do it to tackle the very real issue of 300 people in Wales currently waiting for an organ transplant to improve their lives and of the 50 people every year who die before a suitable organ can be found. Through the hard work of NHS staff and others, we have made a great deal of progress in recent years to increase the organ donation rate in Wales. However we cannot rest on our laurels and assume rates will continue to rise.
International evidence shows organ donation has risen in other countries which have opt-out systems. I believe introducing a soft opt-out system in Wales, together with a very comprehensive public awareness campaign, will help increase the number of organs available.
Under our proposals, people will have more choice and families will be better aware of each other’s views. A soft opt-out system does not take away the “gift” that organ donation represents. Many people feel they would like to donate organs but do not want to think about it during their lifetime. Having a system like the one we propose, will make it easier for more of us to help someone else after we die. Of course, safeguards are vital. That is why the role of the family is so important and why people will be encouraged as part of the new arrangements to talk to their families.
I have visited transplant wards and talked to the patients waiting for organs. One conversation was especially enlightening. I asked a lady what she would say to people who have any doubts about the soft opt-out system. Her answer was simple. She told me they should visit a transplant ward themselves, and speak to people, who like her, exist day-to-day waiting for that life-changing call. She told me these conversations would end all doubts about whether or not this legislation is a good idea.
The consultation period closes on 31st January. We have already received a large number of responses and expect more to arrive in the next few days. We will take into account what the responses say about how this system should work and it is my intention to lay a Bill before the Assembly before the end of the year. Changes will not be introduced before 2015 to allow a long period of awareness and education.
Let us continue to be progressive on this issue as a society so we can feel we have done everything we could do to help improve the lives of our fellow citizens.