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Heart of the Matter Katharine A. Gilchrist, Vegan Views 99 (Winter 2003/4)

You probably remember how appalled public opinion seemed to be when it turned out that medical researchers had been stealing human organs. I thought it was a good time to explain the case for donating one's own organs to medical science after death. The newspapers did not seem interested in the article I wrote.

According to Animal Aid, about 400,000 animals are killed in the UK each year just so that their tissues can be used in test tubes. These, of course, do not necessarily react in the same way as human tissues. For example, when various chemicals were tested on rats and mice, over 40% of them were carcinogenic in one species but not the other (source: Ames et al. "Ranking Possible Carcinogenic Hazards", Science, Volume 236, 1987). If rats are dissimilar to mice, they are certainly unlike people.

I completed a humane donor card. I assumed that was that. If I died, my tissues would be used instead of someone using guinea pigs. Then an episode of Casualty got me worried.

The basic premise was utterly daft. The fact that a hunt saboteur was killed was, sadly, plausible. The manner of his death was not. The writer had not bothered to find out that the aim of hunt sabotage is to put hounds off the scent, not to stand in front of horses as they jump. I was shocked that although the victim was a hunt sab, nobody even thought to ask whether he had a humane donor card. Was this a further example of abysmal research or a reflection of reality?

How could I be sure my donor card would be taken seriously? In 1994, I wrote to the Department of Health. I was referred to Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Anatomy. They assumed I wanted to donate my body for dissection by medical students.

That is a perfectly valid course of action, but not the one I was trying to choose. For one thing, it would exclude most of the eligible organs being used for transplant. Corneas were the exception. One could give the gift of sight...but not the gift of life.

Once I had finally explained to civil servants what I wanted to do, the best they could do was suggest that I contact specific medical research bodies. No names or addresses of such organisations were supplied.

Matters have improved. There is now a tissue bank donor register. Its introductory leaflet states, "Animals have traditionally been widely used [to test new drugs] ...it is now possible to make more efficient use of human cells, tissues and organs".

Donor forms are available from the tissue bank (Peterborough District Hospital, Thorpe Road, Peterborough, PE3 6DA). The form states, "We will always ask specifically if we require eyes". It is sensitive of them to acknowledge that people may have aesthetic problems with particular organs.

The donor's signature must be accompanied by that of a witness confirming that it is genuine. The form must be sent off with an sae, which will be returned with an acknowledgement that it has been received. This seems much more sensible than the organ transplant donor scheme, where there seem to be no safeguards to ensure someone does not fill in someone else's name and address and forge their signature. Nor does the organ donor register acknowledge that an application has even been received. In theory, someone's kind offer to donate their kidneys after death could go missing in the post and they might never realise this.

The tissue bank can arrange for the collection of bodies within a 150 mile radius of Peterborough. It pays for the body to be taken to Peterborough and for the unused body parts to be returned to the pre-arranged undertaker. The bank does not fund funerals. (This seems to indicate a certain lack of gratitude on the part of society as a whole).

Unless the donor specifies otherwise, any organs that can be used for transplantation are harvested before tissues, organs or fluids are taken for research. The research involves seeing how the parts react with substances that may become new medicines.

It does worry me that someone will eventually probably test the potential medicine on animals. On the other hand, it will be the donated tissues that give the real clues as to how the product might react in a real human. More of a clue than the testers would get using the tissues of animals specially killed for the purpose.

Of course, it would be good to hope that by the time one goes, a long way into the future, animal testing will have been abolished. If so, this dilemma would be solved.

I would like other options, such as being able to let researchers examine the body in detail if a particular condition is present, but how can I predict what condition may eventually prove fatal?

The tissue bank cannot guarantee that the body can be used. For example, infection may render it unsuitable. Anything taken but not used after 10 years will be destroyed "in a lawful manner".

Still, maybe signing a few bits of paper will save a couple of guinea pigs and help find a useful medicine. (Yes, I am sure I read that the World Health Organisation said only about 200 drugs out of 50,000 were useful. Guess which group I'm hoping to add to? The small bunch of useful ones I hope, of course) It's not much, but it is hard to be sure of achieving something useful even whilst one is actually alive...

Related Vegan Views articles...
Cross-reference: Animal Rights
Cross-reference: Medical Matters