Editorial: Sometimes, a single word can save a life

04:21, Jul 22 2014

Queenstown drivers, take a bow. Data from the NZ Transport Agency has revealed that Queenstown-Lakes District residents are the likeliest of any in New Zealand to indicate on their driving licences a desire to donate their organs in the event of their death. Sixty-six per cent ticked the box that says "If my life is over, I want to help save the life of someone else."

In most cases, the question does not arise. When they die, people are usually too old to donate, or it is not possible to obtain the organ before it has decayed too far. But that makes the few available all the more precious.

Unlike some countries, New Zealand does not have an organ donor register. The box on the licence is indicative only and has no legal force: it is the family who decides. About half say no. Lives would be saved if more organs were donated. And even where an organ is not a lifesaver, a new kidney or heart can make an immense difference to the quality of life someone experiences.

So why not make it easier? Eight years ago, two bills were introduced to Parliament to create an organ donors register in New Zealand. Both failed. The reason was cultural. Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples explained to Parliament that Maori culture has serious sensitivities about the re-use of human tissues in another body. Fair enough. And no-one is suggesting that it be compulsory. Sharples' objection went one step further. "The proposal to prevent whanau members from being able to override the wishes of an individual is a proposal that clearly privileges the individual and relegates the collective to an inferior status," he said.

This raises an important philosophical issue. Are you "owned" by your culture? Do you have the right to choose what set of cultural values you sign up to? Sharples' answer was no. And since we cannot be racist about this, if Maori could not be free to choose, neither could Pakeha. Maori objections sunk both bills.

But the lack of a register does not stop us from making our view known to our families, and getting them used to the idea that some good may be salvaged from the death of a loved one. If you do not want to do that, that is fine: it is your body. But either way, it is good for family to know what you want. It could save them a painful decision.


The Southland Times