An 11th-hour request by an Ohio death row inmate to donate his organs is raising troubling moral and medical questions among transplant experts and ethicists.
Less than a day before child killer Ronald Phillips was set to die by lethal injection, Republican Gov. John Kasich on Wednesday postponed the execution to look into Phillips’ request.
Phillips, 40, wants to give relatives a kidney before he is put to death and his heart afterward.
“I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio,” Kasich said in a statement, “but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues, then we should allow for that to happen.”
Some medical experts and others warn that execution chemicals could render organs unusable. They are also deeply disturbed by the prospect of death row inmates donating organs, even if can ease shortages so severe that patients die while on the waiting list.
They question whether the condemned can freely give consent, or are desperately hoping to win clemency. They worry that such practices would make judges and juries more likely to hand out death sentences. And they are troubled by the notion of using inmates for spare parts.
Medical ethicist Arthur Caplan of New York University said organ donation is incompatible with the goals of punishment.
“It’s unethical because this guy who’s being executed raped and killed a 3-year-old. When you donate your organs, there’s a kind of redemption,” Caplan said. “Punishment and organ donation don’t go well together. I don’t think the kinds of people we’re executing we want to make in any way heroic.”
Yet it’s not unheard of for a death row inmate to become an organ donor.
Condemned Delaware inmate Steven Shelton was allowed to donate a kidney to his mother in 1995, though his execution wasn’t imminent.
In 1996, the Alabama Supreme Court halted David Larry Nelson’s execution so he could donate a kidney to his sick brother.