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Jade Vergara

The Australian organ donation system

By Jade Vergara, Waverley Christian College


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You’re diagnosed with a fatal lung condition at two years old.

Imagine growing up surrounded by doctors, nurses, needles and machines.

For 10 years, each breath you take is from an oxygen tank. Walking, eating, or even standing makes you unbelievably tired. You’ve probably coughed out more blood than you had in your body at this point.

For 13-year-old Oliver Cooper, that was reality. In fact, only a few months ago, that would’ve been the end of his story.

But, thanks to an organ donor, Oliver’s lung transplant means extra years of BETTER life. It means he has another chance at a childhood.
I’m not here to tell you to run to the emergency room and donate an organ or two to complete strangers. I’m here to talk about your decision to donate your organs when you die.

I’m talking about how you and I could save and transform lives, even when we’re no longer living. With an opt-out rather than an opt-in system here in Australia, I believe that presuming consent from all Australians will create convenience, allow for freedom of choice, and ensure that we have more success stories like Oliver’s.

An opt-in organ donation system means you and I need to take it upon ourselves to sign up online or at the centres to ‘opt-in’. Australia is a world leader for successful transplant outcomes. But, when we look at the data, Australia has one of the lowest organ donation rates in the world. Men, women and children, need organ donations, whether we like it or not.

According to the Australian and New Zealand Organ Donation Registry, there are more than 1400 Australians and New Zealanders on the transplant waiting list at any given time. That number only includes those who require immediate surgery, not everyone who actually needs it. 

Let’s look at it from a logical perspective. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, 76,817 Australians died in hospitals in 2017, where their body can be medically supported until the organs can be donated.  But, not everyone is suitable due to gender, age, weight or ethnicity. Not all families consent, and not everyone signed up to be an organ donor.

After putting all those factors together, we ended up with only 510 deceased organ donors last year.

We have the skills, the resources, and the technology to make sure that every single name on that waiting list and beyond can have a better life. So, what are we doing?

A study in the Medical Journal of Australia in 2017 pointed out the large untapped pool of potential deceased organ donors that could save the lives of hundreds of patients on the waiting list, which could easily be solved by donor registration. It only takes five minutes to sign up and become a donor.
Trust me, I’ve done it.

Yet only a small amount of people ever do. Why? Because the opt-in system doesn’t work. It’s the same principle with every task or commitment that each of us faces – starting is always the hardest part.

Something will always come up, whether it’s an assignment that’s due or an unexpected call from a friend. With the uncontrollable variables of life in the way, a lot of us never do sign up, resulting in this tiny pool of possible organ donors with all the odds stacked against them.

But what if we just switched things around? Let’s bring in the opt-out system. What if everyone is assumed to be an organ donor, unless you and I take it upon ourselves to sign off online or at the centres to ‘opt-out’.

Instead of 510 potential donors, what if we had 10,000? 20,000? 30,000?  How many more lives could we save? We already have the favour of the majority, 77% to be exact. So why should we have to make the effort to sign up?

France, Wales, Sweden, Portugal, Spain and, most recently, Britain are just some of the countries that already have opt-out systems. Studies have shown that Austria’s opt-out system has a consent rate of 99.98 per cent. Countries like Singapore and Belgium that switched to opt-out systems increased their donors by 20 to 30 per cent. That shows us that this is isn’t some new and unexplored idea. It shows us that Australia needs to catch up.

I understand that there are those who don’t want to be organ donors, for plenty of personal reasons. Some feel it takes away their right to decide what happens with their body after death. Some may have cultural traditions or religious practices that forbid organ donation. But my answer to those arguments, or even any argument for that matter, is the fact that it’s an OPT-OUT system.

These arguments are assuming that once the policy is put in place, no one would be able to say no.

You have your say. Your family has a say. We would never remove the power of choice, we simply remove the inconvenience.

Countries with opt-in systems tend to view organ donation as an extreme act of altruism, like leaving 50 per cent of your estate to charity or going on a hunger strike for a political campaign. But for those with opt-out systems, organ donation is more like letting someone go ahead of you in a queue, almost mindless, normal.

People tend to conform with the expectations of those around them. When organ donation is normalised, rates go up. When people are scared, unsure, or even unaware of organ donation, that creates a problem.

It’s time for us to have more conversations, more information, and more awareness. It’s time to make organ donation status quo. Let’s make saving lives the norm and change the default option from a no to a yes. Think about all the other Oliver Coopers we could help.

Let’s work together to become a community that saves lives.

Let’s fully use the resources that we have for the good of our families, friends and neighbours.

Let’s bring in the opt-out organ donation system.

Why wouldn’t you?