The Catholic Church has responded to a newly enacted policy that means people in England will be required to "opt-out" if they do not wish their organs to be donated after death.
The new law, which came into effect yesterday, means that all those over the age of 18 who are not in any excluded groups agree to have their organs taken unless they state otherwise. The NHS claims that the law change will help save millions of lives.
However, in a statement, the Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales questioned the change, noting that "a system of presumed consent risks taking away the right of the individual to exercise this decision, and therefore potentially undermines the concept of donation as a gift."
The Bishops urged Catholics to read their "Organ Donation Guidance" that was issued in February 2020 and contains information related to the Organ Donation Register and how to "record your faith beliefs so that they may be respected in the event of death and organ donation."
Bishop Paul Mason, the lead Bishop for Healthcare and Mental Health, said:
"Preparing for death should not be feared. These guidelines hope to provide you with some information to help you make a well-informed decision about donating your organs after death. It is important to discuss this with your family and loved ones so that they are aware of your decision and can honour it. In turn, it is hoped that this may help to start a conversation so that you too are able to make an informed choice about loved ones when the time comes.
"It is good to see that the Human Tissue Authority have both retained and strengthened the sections relating to faith (Paragraphs 92-102) in the final Code of Practice. The Code of Practice has also provided further clarity on the potential case of a family objecting to the donation of the deceased’s organs where consent has been deemed, as well as the role of the specialist nurses (SNs) in this scenario. We are grateful to the Human Tissue Authority for taking our consultation response into account and for providing these assurances."
In a letter to faith groups, Professor John Forsythe, Medical Director, and Dr Dale Gardiner, National Clinical Lead for Organ Donation, of NHS Blood and Transplant, explained:
"The essential principle we want to reinforce is that a person’s faith and beliefs will be respected in discussions with their families about donation, should the opportunity arise – whether or not they have recorded their decision in the register."
After pressing NHS Blood and Transplant about organ donation in light of the coronavirus pandemic, Bishop Paul Mason received the following assurances:
"Our practices in supporting families are continuing during this unprecedented time. We are continuing to approach the family of every potential organ donor, to discuss whether their loved one would have wanted to donate their organs.
"We continue to offer families the opportunity to seek advice about organ donation from a faith leader, in this case a Priest. Our specialist nurses would facilitate those discussions and depending on the situation in the hospital, this would be supported, either face to face or by phone. It will come down to local hospital policies whether or not such practices can continue due to COVID-19.
"We are conscious that it is a very difficult time for families. Hospitals are functioning as best as they can in very challenging circumstances. But rest assured, our specialist nurses remain committed to supporting donation conversations and the donation process, where it is possible to proceed, with the same care, dignity and compassion as always."
Patients who have had COVID-19, or have been exposed to the virus, will not be considered as organ donors.