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Capital idea?

Of late, there has been a hullabaloo over the legality and ethics of capital punishment, writes Subhas Gupta.

india Updated: Nov 29, 2006 00:58 IST

Of late, there has been a hullabaloo over the legality and ethics of capital punishment. As a transplant surgeon, though, I want to highlight a strange practice in a neighbouring country. In China, condemned prisoners have become organ donors. Last year, over 2,000 liver transplants were performed in China. In our own country, the medical community and patients suffering from end-stage liver or kidney diseases lament that there is no attempt to promote cadaveric organ donation. Obviously, the Chinese authorities not only have no issue with capital punishment, but they have also ensured that it serves another purpose.

Western ethics would condemn this as a ghastly exercise. In India, there is such a shortage of organs that I wonder how I would react if it were to happen here. Looked at from the prisoner’s point of view, does he give his consent? Besides, how valid is it prior to execution, when one is in mental anguish? Can we take out organs without consent? One may argue that if you can take life without an individual’s consent, surely one can retrieve organs in the same way too. But is that ethical?

From the patient’s point of view, will he be comfortable with the knowledge that his organ donor was executed? In a Birmingham transplant unit where I trained, a recipient was given the heart of a deceased swimmer. Apparently, this individual was scared of water. He has now become an avid swimmer. Although this is just an interesting anecdote, one’s personality cannot entirely be decided by the brain.

As medical students, we were told that ancient Greek physicians thought that body functions depended on four humours, which emanate from the liver. This had an effect on one’s temperament as well. Of course, modern medicine does not believe in this.

From a philosophical angle, what are we? Are we not an end result of all the various tissues and organs that we are made of? When the death of an individual is imminent, wouldn’t it be better to gift life to 10 other recipients from the same individual? In our society, this practice may be considered unacceptable. But should one waste organs in a country where there is hardly any cadaveric donation?

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