The high price of Alder Hey

As a result of the sordid auction now underway in the UK courts over 'retained organs', it will soon be easier to get compensation for the removal of an organ from a corpse than it is to get admitted to hospital for an operation on a living body.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

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Topics Politics

Commenting on the impact of the report on ‘retained organs’ at Alder Hey in January 2001, I wrote that this was ‘a crusade that hurt many while benefiting nobody’ (1). It is now clear that I was wrong. It appears that more than 3000 families are joining a mass legal action against the NHS over the retention of organs and that their compensation claim could exceed £30million (2).

As a result of this shameful action, a sum of money that would make a substantial contribution towards building a new hospital is likely to be spent in assuaging a sense of grievance that has been fostered by lawyers, politicians and key figures in the medical elite. Most of those now claiming personal injury as a result of the retention of a relative’s organs were not even aware of this injury until they were contacted by the Retained Organs Commission set up following the Alder Hey inquiry.

Though lawyers now claim that these organs were retained without consent, this concept has been comprehensively redefined in the course of the scandal. Whereas in the past relatives gave agreement for a post-mortem on the general understanding that this would be beneficial for medical research and teaching purposes, now they are expected to give detailed and specific consent to every aspect of the autopsy process.

Furthermore, the requirement for this highly formalised and negotiated form of consent is now being projected into the past as doctors are retrospectively held to account to a newly devised standard – and the lawyers reap the rewards.

But the true cost of the ‘retained organs’ crusade is even greater – and is being paid by people who now have to wait even longer for transplants. In the same week as the announcement of the mass action over organ retention comes a report from Moorfields Eye Hospital in London of a substantial fall in the availability of corneal grafts that could save somebody’s eyesight (3). This confirms fears of a growing public reluctance to donate kidneys, livers, hearts in the wake of the Alder Hey scandal.

In his interim report on Bristol – the document that initiated the ‘retained organs’ scandal in May 2000 – Professor Ian Kennedy accused doctors of ‘arrogance, born of indifference’. This demagogic outburst, calculated to whip up popular animosities and prejudices over the use of human cadavers for transplantation, research and teaching purposes, paved the way for the furore over the Alder Hey report.

As a result of this report, it is already easier for somebody in Britain to receive the organs of some long-deceased family member than it is to get a viable organ for transplantation. And as a result of the sordid auction now underway in the courts, it will soon be easier to get compensation for the removal of an organ from a corpse than it is to get admitted to hospital for an operation on a living body.

Dr Michael Fitzpatrick is the author of MMR and Autism, Routledge, 2004 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)); and The Tyranny of Health: Doctors and the Regulation of Lifestyle, Routledge, 2000 (buy this book from Amazon UK or Amazon USA). He is also a contributor to Alternative Medicine: Should We Swallow It? Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).

Read on:

spiked-issues: Body parts

(1) See ‘Amnesty’ for dead organs: morbid anatomy, by Dr Michael Fitzpatrick

(2) Guardian, 6 August 2001

(3) The Times, London, 6 August 2001

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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