Organs for sale

The real grave-robbers

Publication of the report into the removal of organs from deceased child patients at Alder Hey Hospital in Liverpool, revealing that procedures involving formal consent from bereaved parents were widely disregarded, has produced one of the most disturbing and, from the point of view of ordinary patients, counterproductive outbreaks of mass panic in recent memory.

The outrage and hurt of the parents is real enough. Socialists can only sympathise with those who were apparently unaware of what was being done with the remains of their loved ones, and have been subjected to trauma as a result of finding out in this way. However, much of the emotional pain involved stems, not from harm done by medical staff to any living person, but rather from a paradoxical violation of increasingly 'privatised' cultural norms - including, it seems, in regard to the treatment of the dead.

The issue has been shamelessly exploited by the enemies of social progress and enlightenment, from Christian fundamentalists like Ann Widdecombe for the Tories - echoed by Church of England clerics - to health minister Alan Milburn, and fanned to a point of hysteria by the rightwing tabloids.

This should make anyone genuinely concerned with public health and the welfare of ordinary people and their children extremely suspicious and on their guard. Reactionaries - who yearn to privatise the health service, who attack a woman's right to abortion, who want to outlaw the 'morning after' pill, or who dream of rolling back the tide of social progress on such questions as gay rights - finding little resonance for their fulmination on these kinds of questions, are exploiting this issue as a flanking manoeuvre.

Some such people even sink to exploiting a freak episode such as the exploits of the serial killer Harold Shipman - which is a palpable undercurrent in the present mass hysteria. The aim - to poison public debate on questions of medical ethics and create a climate of irrationality, thereby softening up the body politic for their overall reactionary agenda.

The adverse effect that this kind of propaganda is having is shown by the massive drying up of organ donations for transplants. For example, at King's College hospital in south London, there have been no organ donations suitable for transplant in the last two weeks. The normal rate of organ transplants at King's prior to the present panic was approximately one per day, and a similar drop has occurred all around the country. This has highlighted inadequacies in the mechanism for donating organs and in the treatment of corpses and poses a very real threat to patients desperately awaiting transplants. The reactionary ranting 'Doris Karloff', and the 'moral' guardians of the Daily Mail, Sun et al, do not seem to be quite so concerned about the welfare of these unfortunate people.

In large part the panic stems from the creeping privatisation of the health service itself. It is not so much the routine practice of removing organs to help research and other patients, but the rather grubby element of financial gain involved in the process, as revealed by the Alder Hey enquiry, that has fed the public revulsion.

Millions of pounds have been reciprocated in exchange for the delivery of human tissue. In a society where every facet of social life is being subjected to the laws of the market and transformed into someone's 'property', it is no wonder that parents are averse to the organs of their deceased children ending up as assets on the balance sheet of hospitals that are more and more being transformed by government policy and the prevailing economic orthodoxy into money-grabbing businesses.

In a society where the main ethic was social need, not the need to turn a profit, it would be an accepted norm for the organs of those who tragically meet premature death to be used for the greater good of all citizens: i.e., to lessen the numbers of those who face such tragedy in the future. Indeed, even in those capitalist societies where the Thatcherite 'revolution' against welfare and social provision has been held in check by comparison to Britain (e.g., France) organ donation in such circumstances is considered normal, with relatives having to actively object to prevent it taking place.

Given this, the witch hunts against doctors that are being waged by Blairites, Tories and their press ought to be opposed. Indeed, the kind of sinister hounding of doctors, misdirecting and exploiting the pain of bereaved parents, is not that different from other more obvious kinds of scapegoating - of asylum-seekers, for example - that are used to poison the climate of opinion and divert discontent away from the capitalists and their system.

What appears to have happened here is that various medical staff and hospital administrators, struggling to maintain some sort of functioning health service in the absence of the proper resources to do the job, have disregarded some culturally important formalities in their struggle to gain funding and resources for a grossly understaffed and under-resourced public health system.

Ian Donovan