Patient Autonomy and the Family Veto Problem in Organ Procurement

Social Theory and Practice 43 (1):180-200 (2017)
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A number of bioethicists have been critical of the power of the family to “veto” a patient’s decision to posthumously donate her organs within opt-in systems of organ procurement. One major objection directed at the family veto is that when families veto the decision of their deceased family member, they do something wrong by violating or failing to respect the autonomy of that deceased family member. The goal of this paper is to make progress on answering this objection. I do this in two stages. First, I argue that the most plausible interpretation of what happens when a person registers as an organ donor in an opt-in system is that she gives her consent to the state to posthumously remove her organs for transplantation purposes. Call this the Authorization Account. Second, given the Authorization Account, I argue by analogy that when families veto an individual’s decision to donate and the individual’s organs are not in the end removed, neither the doctors nor the family violate the individual’s autonomy in any morally objectionable sense. Call this the Nonremoval Thesis. I argue that since the Nonremoval Thesis is true, we do not violate or fail to respect the autonomy of registered donors when we fail to remove their organs because their family has objected.
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