The rights of the dead (an update)

Well I see that the debate about organ donation has reared its head again. My views have, if anything, hardened since I wrote on this subject last year. Please read that post before going on to read this update.

I am a liberal. As such, I sympathise with the view that the state should not have a right to take human organs after that person has died. However, I don’t agree with this.

The reason is this: dead people don’t have rights. They can’t. Because they’re dead. And as much as I would like to have a say over what happens to my body when I die, the reality is that I don’t have much choice in the matter. Maggots don’t care much about human rights, you see.

Rights and liberties can only be extended to people from the moment they are born until the moment they die. After all, it is a bit of a stretch to say that an unborn child has rights if the only thing she can do is wobble around inside a womb while being physically unable to be detached from her mother. And you certainly can’t take advantage of liberties when you’re dead because your only function will be to rot.

A common rebuttal is that although you will be dead, your next of kin won’t. But I never got the big whoop-de-doo over kinship anyway. If you’re married, then yes. But not so much with blood relatives. And if you have a major libertarian / individualist streak, chances are that you won’t marry. Many people dislike their relatives, and it is certainly a gigantic leap to say that their wishes are perfectly aligned with mine.

As such, the idea of having relatives make their decisions for me once I’m dead puts a chill up my spine as much as the idea of the state making them. For me, it is no more oppressive for the state to have an automatic right to my organs once I am dead than it is for my next of kin to.

And if the state has that access, it will be doing it to save the lives of dying people rather than just huffing about it with their arms folded. Besides which, I will find it very difficult to care either way, given that I will be dead and all.

(Not that I hate my relatives, you understand. The point I’m trying to make is that when I’m dead I don’t get a say anyway, so it makes no difference to me who makes these decisions, whether it’s the state, relatives, or complete strangers.)

The question that this organ donation hoo-ha asks is this: Should the rights of the dying be put ahead of the rights of those who are already dead? The answer is surely ‘yes’.

Interesting posts from both sides of the debate:


  1. The question that this organ donation hoo-ha asks is this: Should the rights of the dying be put ahead of the rights of those who are already dead? The answer is surely β€˜yes’.

    Wrong question. The question you should be asking is; “do the ends justify the means?” Answer; No.

    The day you answer “yes” to that question, you set a very dangerous precedent.

    This is not – and has never been – about the rights of the dead; it is about the state “presuming” consent. They have no right to make any such presumption – and should never be granted that right. Ever.

    My stance has hardened, too πŸ˜‰

  2. Totally with you on this issue – what good are my organs going to do me when I’m dead? If my organs are in a usable state, whoever needs them is very welcome to them.

    How can my body being intact (although still very very dead) bring reassurance or comfort to those I leave behind? It comforts me more to know that I could help people after I’m gone in such a valuable way.

    The state already dictates what you should and shouldn’t do with a dead body (throwing it over the back fence or leaving it for the bin men to collect not being an option apparently), so saying that useful organs should be removed prior to cremation/burial is not much of a step further in my mind. It’s practical, and a benefit to public health.

  3. “They have no right to make any such presumption – and should never be granted that right. Ever.”

    This is right, I think. The whole ‘presumed consent’/tacit consent idea is rather dangerous, I think. All the evidence suggests that, since most people aren’t too fussed about what happens to their organs after death, the problem seems to be that this preference hasn’t been properly expressed in terms of the take-up of organ donor cards. There’s been plenty of suggestions as to how this might be done – asking people when they register with a doctor, for example – and I would have thought that it would be more senible, and liberal, to try these rather than going down the ‘presumed consent’ road.

    In addition to the posts you link below, you might find the following interesting:

    This one demolishes the idea that you can’t have a relationship with the state after you’re dead:

    This from Norm is good on the whole question of property and consent.

  4. But say (heaven forbid) that one of your parents dies or – despite your protestations – in a few years’ you have kids and at the age of 18 one of them dies without having made clear what they want done with their bits and bobs. Then what? Would you be happy to sit back and let the ‘state’ have whatever they fancied from that person, or would you – as a son or father consumed with grief – like to keep them in one piece until they were buried/cremated?

    On preview, your first commenter says it better!