Organ Transplantation: Health Authorities' Battle against Illness and Grief

by Dragoneye on February 10, 2017 - 2:08pm

              In Canada, health institutions are not obliged by the law to grant the family of the deceased the right to veto the donor’s consent to organ donation (qtd. in Zafar). Yet, many health authorities choose to respect the bereaved relatives’ wishes of preserving the deceased’s body in spite of the latter’s clear consent. It is essential that medical professionals use virtue ethics in order to do the surgical removal of organs and balance the deceased’ interests, the family’s concerns and the patients’ needs.

              On the one hand, the medical professional can change and save many lives by allowing or performing the surgery. 278 Canadians died waiting for an organ transplant in 2014 because of the alarming gap between organs demand and supply (“Blood, organ and tissue donation”). One could adopt a utilitarian, teleological approach, and decide to override the sensitivities of the family or friends by considering that the number of people whose lives can be positively affected by the surgical procedure and their families exceeds the number of relatives who wish to protect the body. However, this approach would bring tremendous strain on the family of the deceased who is already in mourning.

              On the other hand, in an act of empathy, rescinding the deceased’s consent and accepting the grieving family’s decision is another course of action health authorities can take.  By compassion for the families who fear of body mutilation or consider the removal of organs as a form of disrespect, they adopt an ethical egoist, teleological stance, as they seek relief from their feelings of guilt towards the family members of the deceased . The theory is nevertheless problematic when applied by a health authority as the duty of a healthcare professional is to tend the sick and the disabled.  

              Therefore, a third ethical framework and the most rational way for medical professionals to face this moral dilemma is to use virtue ethics as guidelines. Since virtue ethics means to become a virtuous person whose “virtues can be learned and developed’’,  this theory leads a person in a medical setting to adopt virtues which will benefit himself, the family members of the deceased and the people waiting to be operated (Merill 25).

               At first glance, the virtue of kindness in saving others’ lives and the virtue of compassion for the family in mourning seem in conflict. However, empathy can take another form than simply yielding to the grieving family’s demands. For instance, the patients’ only mean of being free of pain is to gain back their health while it is possible for the grieving families to change their view of happiness. Using their wisdom constructed by past experiences with death, the health professionals should put efforts in making the relatives understand that paradoxically, their desire to keep the body from desecration is a direct disrespect to the dead as they go against the last act of charity of their beloved. They can lessen the pain caused by the loss of their loved one by changing their perspective that the deceased will be granted a new life by living through the beneficiaries. That they agree to adopt these views or not would not be of the health authority’s concern because “the character of the person rather than the details of a single action” matters according to virtue ethics (“Hendricks”). Ultimately, by using the virtue ethics approach, health authorities would consider that the ethical action would be to proceed to organ retrieval.

              In the end, virtue ethics would urge medical institutions to conduct the surgical removal of organs while still adopting a humanistic and educational stance towards the relatives of the deceased. Health authorities must raise awareness not only among bereaved families, but also among the general population as a preventive measure; the mourning of a loved one and the action of letting go of the physical body are not mutually exclusive.

Works Cited

“Blood, organ and tissue donation.” Government of Canada, 26 Jan.2017,

Merrill, John C. “Overview, Theoretical Foundations for Media Ethics.” Media Ethic, edited by Sarah Waurechen, Eastman, 2017, pp.13-42.

Hendricks, Scotty. “Virtue Ethics: A Moral System You've Never Heard of — But Probably Use.”Big Think, 12 Dec.2016,

Zafar, Amina. “How the family veto creates a grey zone around Canada's organ donation policy.” CBC News, 1 Dec.2016,


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