Altruism is one thing which sets humans apart from almost all other species. Although there are examples of altruism in certain animal behaviours they do not appear to exist at the same level of cognition and consideration as in man. Altruism can be defined as selflessness in action for the benefit of another genetically unrelated individual. That sounds rather mechanical but in the context of transplantation what we are talking about is giving another individual an organ or part of an organ where there is no benefit to oneself other than the knowledge that someone somewhere may benefit from this.
Photo “Giving Alms” by Andrew Gous DiGiSLR on Flickr
When altruistic donation was first suggested the transplant community were somewhat sceptical and many medical professionals (I am ashamed to say) viewed potential altruistic donors as being in some way whacky or unhinged! Greater experience and understanding has meant that there is much wider acceptance that altruistic donation is quite a normal part of the landscape. Exploring why people become altruistic donors has provided many bioethicists with interesting lines of enquiry. We know that in the UK men are slightly more likely to become altruistic donors than women, we know that a number of altruistic donors have a medical connection (being either doctors or nurses) and that the age of altruistic donors ranges from people in their 20’s to those in their 70’s. Sometimes people take a pragmatic approach and donate because they have discovered or already know that they have far more organ function than they need and that their donation could really make a difference to a sick person’s life. For others their faith is an important consideration in deciding to donate. For others it is personal experience of a relative who has either suffered from kidney or liver disease or who has benefited from a transplant that acts as the stimulus. Messages in the media and public appeals are thought to act as the stimulus for altruistic donation in around half of cases.
In this country we run a system of non-directed donation, which means that the donation is made to an unknown individual. In practice this means that the organ is often removed in the donor’s local transplant centre and then transported to another centre for use in the recipient. The anonymity of donor and recipient are maintained but sometimes people choose to waive this right and the donor and recipient meet.
Altruistic donation is becoming more common in the UK with both kidneys and most recently parts of the liver being donated by selfless individuals. In the UK the rule of sang-froid and the stiff upper lip has meant that altruistic donors are afforded no fuss or recognition but perhaps the time has come to change this and make some small and appropriate recognition of a supremely selfless act. You can read more about altruistic donation in the articles below.