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America Should Allow Death Row Organ Donation
With desperately needed organs so scarce, why are we depriving any recipients of a chance at life?
Within weeks, Texas death row inmate Ramiro Gonzales may face execution for a murder he committed in 2001. What makes his case notable is that someone else’s life hangs in the balance as well: the desperate person to whom he is hoping to give his kidney.
For many months, Gonzales, 39, had been exchanging letters with Cantor Michael Zoosman, an ordained Jewish clergyman living in Maryland. As co-founder of an anti-death penalty advocacy group, Zoosman first wrote to Gonzales last year as part of outreach to inmates with scheduled execution dates.
After a month of correspondence, Zoosman told Gonzales that a member of his congregation needed a kidney. Gonzales offered his, but eventually found that his blood type wasn’t a match. Rather than give up, Gonzales still wanted to be a “Good Samaritan” donor, giving to someone with whom he did not have a connection.
But Gonzales’ initial request for a stay of execution so he could make the donation was denied. He did eventually receive a stay on different grounds—because of a concern about an expert witness over a decade ago at Gonzales’ murder trial, who has since admitted that his testimony was flawed. The resulting stay gave extra time for another potential recipient, Judy Frith, who matches Gonzales’ rare blood type, to send a letter to Governor Greg Abbott on July 10. “I cannot emphasize enough what a precious gift you would be giving someone if you allowed Mr. Gonzales the opportunity to donate his kidney,” she wrote.
Were Frith to receive a new kidney, she would be freed from her own prison of dialysis. But even so, according to Gonzales’ lawyers, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice won’t permit him to go through with the donation, citing concerns that the surgery could “possibly [interfere] with the court-ordered execution date” and that the prison system might be unable to cover the costs of the procedure.
The nation has a crying need for organs. About a dozen people die each day for want of a kidney, not to mention those removed from the list because they fell too ill to tolerate transplant surgery even if an organ would finally come along. With the crisis this acute, why are we depriving recipients of a chance at life—and donors a chance to do good?
In 2006, and again in 2016, I received a kidney transplant—both times from dear friends. After the first transplant, I became a vocal proponent of compensating kidney donors to help solve the dire organ shortage. (Currently, federal law prohibits compensation for donations, due to fears of both abuse and third-party profit-seeking.)
For prisoners, becoming a donor can be additionally difficult. The federal prison system, for example, does not permit posthumous donations, and, like some states, limits living donations to immediate family members. While ethical and medical concerns may understandably motivate such policies, the continued barriers disregard pragmatic ways to make donation feasible—and, most importantly, often ignore the desires of inmates themselves.
In 2011, shortly after writing an article on ways to facilitate donations by prisoners, I received a letter from the high-profile killer Christian Longo, who still awaits execution at Oregon State Penitentiary. For years, Longo had petitioned Oregon to let him donate. “There is no way to atone for my crimes, but I believe that a profound benefit to society can come from my circumstances,” he wrote in a New York Times op-ed. Even though Longo wished for his organs to be donated after his execution, Oregon authorities denied his request.
That same year, I also heard from Shannon Ross, then 29, at the Stanley Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. He was eight years into a 17-year sentence for reckless homicide. “I am hoping you can give me some advice about my desire to get the state [of Wisconsin] to allow inmates to donate their organs—without compensation,” Ross wrote. “I am not simply looking to be humored as I try to make my time pass faster. I have been pursuing this objective for five years now.”
Ross wanted to donate one of his kidneys to a stranger. The penal system proved to be a barrier. “As a rule, we are banned from live organ donation,” he told me. “After how much we have taken from society, it’s unacceptable that society is denied the opportunity to receive something so valuable from us in return.”
Refusing Gonzales the opportunity to donate may make sense to those who believe that a person responsible for a monstrous crime should, on principle, be denied anything he desires.
But if the Governor of Texas is committed to doing what is morally righteous, then he should allow Gonzales to save a precious human life.
Sally Satel is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a visiting professor of psychiatry at Columbia University’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons.