The Best Part About Facebook’s Organ-Donation Project

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
May 1 2012 2:58 PM

The Best Part About Facebook’s Organ-Donation Project

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An organ-donation operation.

Photo by Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

Today Facebook announced that users will be able to share their organ-donor status on their Timelines. The goal is to use positive peer pressure to encourage more people to consider donating their organs: If someone on the fence sees that most of his friends are donors, then he might consider changing his mind.

Torie Bosch Torie Bosch

Torie Bosch is the editor of Future Tense, a project of Slate, the New America Foundation, and Arizona State that looks at the implications of new technologies. 

But the real positive here might be providing further proof to a grieving family that a newly lost loved one truly did intend to donate her organs.

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In the New York Times, Charlene R. Zettel of Donate Life California says that having organ-donor status information on a Facebook profile “would certainly provide direction and comfort to the family.” She cautions that Facebook is no substitute for signing on to an official state organ-donor registry. (Facebook shares links to state registries when you update your organ donor status, to help you make it legal.)

While Facebook’s organ-donor status might not be any more legally binding than its “in a relationship” designation, it could have definite benefits. For instance, if a deceased person intended to donate but didn't bother signing up for a registry, an affirmative status on Facebook could encourage his family to grant consent for donation. Parents also have final say on organ donation when minors die—and where do teenagers express their opinions more definitively than on Facebook?

Facebook’s new role could be even more important abroad. All 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia abide by “first person consent,” meaning that a family cannot override someone’s clear wish to donate organs after death. But that’s not the practice everywhere. In the United Kingdom, according to study published early this year in a supplement to the British Journal of Anaesthesia, “Up to 10% of families of potential donors, who are on the [organ donor registry], subsequently refuse to assent and at present it is an accepted UK practice to respect such wishes, despite the existence of valid consent which at law, the family has no right to overturn.” Similarly, in Australia, family members have “final say,” according to DonateLife Australia, a government website. The reasons given: They don’t want to upset grieving family members, and “you may have changed your mind and told your family, but not changed the Register.”

That excuse—that someone might change their mind but not bother to update an official organ donor registry—is one reason why Facebook may be so valuable in this space. Updating it is so quick and easy, it all but eliminates the “didn’t bother” justification.

For now, Facebook’s organ donation designation is available only in the United States and the United Kingdom. But it should be rolled out to other countries soon.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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