Article - Organ Donation

I don’t often write in this column about specific pieces of legislation going through Parliament – because this is not a political column, and legislation in Parliament obviously has a significant tendency to become highly politicised.

However, this week can be an exception to that rule – because the last week has been a week when we have been debating something that has no party-political divisions associated with it.

The legislation in question is the Bill being put forward by the Labour MP, Geoffrey Robinson, which would have the effect of moving to a system of “opting out” rather than “opting in” for organ donations. In other words, people would be assumed to be willing to have their organs donated to save other people’s lives following their own deaths unless they had specifically opted out by registering their refusal with the NHS.

I have joined Geoffrey Robinson in sponsoring this Bill, together with a range of MPs from across the political parties in the House of Commons, because I have become persuaded that this would be a real life-saver.

Of course, it should be a matter for each individual person to choose whether they wish their organs to be available to save others when they themselves had died. But I think it is entirely reasonable to arrange things so that people have to make a positive choice not to provide their organs under these circumstances, because this means that those for whom it is a matter of indifference (of whom there will be many) will end up by contributing to something that is immensely beneficial for society as a whole.

The sad truth is that very many of us are more likely to make such contributions if we are “nudged” into doing so by an opt-out system than if we have to make a positive effort to opt-in.

There are, of course, many examples in recent years of successful efforts to use such “nudges” to achieve highly beneficial effects.

It has been shown that sending the right people the right kind of text message at the right moment can lead – without any other incentives or penalties – to significantly higher rates of timely tax return. Likewise, it has been shown that offering people the opportunity to make small donations at the moment when they are making large purchases can significantly increase donations to charity. And it has been shown that organising the queues for food in schools in the right way can reduce the consumption of calories and hence the tendency to childhood obesity.

These are just a few among the multitude of examples of benign and successful “nudges” which behavioural science is now bringing forward.

Indeed, it is now becoming apparent that sensible “nudges” of this kind can often be a cheaper, less intrusive, and less heavy handed method of achieving desirable social results than additional regulation and its accompanying enforcement.

As in the case of the organ donation, “nudge” leaves the individual with the final choice and avoids compulsion – a kindlier way, and a more liberal way of achieving goals that we might otherwise seek to achieve through various forms of compulsion or else might fail to achieve through the desire to avoid excessive compulsion.