Health Secretary Alan Johnson has asked an expert taskforce to consider whether all adults in the UK should be automatically listed on an organ donor register unless they register an objection.

The idea, known as presumed consent - under which everybody is a potential donor unless they decide to opt out before death - was suggested earlier this year by Chief Medical Officer Sir Liam Donaldson in his Annual Report for 2006, On the State of Public Health, to help tackle the growing number of organ shortages and patient deaths.

Around 8,000 people in the UK need an organ transplant but only 3,000 are carried out each year, and more than 400 people loose their lives every year waiting for a new kidney, heart, lung or liver, Johnson said, highlighting the need for an increase in donors. “I want to see organ donation and transplant rates start to rise and match the rates seen in some other European countries enabling us to save many more lives,” he stressed.

The Organ Donation Taskforce – set up by the government in 2006 - will look into the complex issues surrounding presumed consent, including giving the family of the deceased a final say on the donation of any organs. “We will establish a special sub group to take this work forward which will examine the complex medical, ethical, legal and societal issues,” commented Elisabeth Buggins, chair of taskforce.

BMA support

The move was welcomed by the British Medical Association, which believes that moving to a system of presumed consent will play an important part in improving the organ donation system to help save more lives.

“We believe that when the taskforce looks at this issue in detail they will agree with us that a system of presumed consent with safeguards, will help to increase the number of donors available. At least one person dies every day while waiting for an organ transplant and we desperately need to change this,” said Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of BMA Ethics and Science.

“Before any changes go ahead however, it is essential that a public information campaign is launched so that people are completely aware of the choices they can make about organ donation. It is important that everyone realises that they will not be compelled to donate their organs but simply make their feelings known if they do not want to donate,” she added.