Lizzy Buchan: It's time for a change of heart in Scotland on organ donation

Christmas is a time for giving, or so the old saying goes. So in the midst of the festivities, it might also be a good time to consider a more profound gift than those underneath the tree.
Unless organ donation sign-up rates rise, the demand for replacement organs will continue to outstrip supply.Unless organ donation sign-up rates rise, the demand for replacement organs will continue to outstrip supply.
Unless organ donation sign-up rates rise, the demand for replacement organs will continue to outstrip supply.

The issue of organ donation has returned to the fore in recent weeks with the launch of a long-awaited consultation on changing the system to increase donor numbers.

A soft opt-out system is one of the options back on the table, where people will be deemed to have given consent unless they actively opt out through the donor register or by telling their family.

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Currently, only those who have given their consent before death can donate their organs.

Scotland’s record on organ donation is a bit of a conundrum as it has the highest proportion of registered donors in the UK but the lowest donation rates of the four nations.

At the time of writing, around 530 Scots were waiting to find a donor.

The agony of waiting months or even years for an organ transplant is unimaginable, the hopes raised then dashed, the plans made then cancelled.

The procedure itself is a marvel of medicine and it seems like a dreadful waste to know how to save someone’s life yet to not to be able to it.

The figures speak for themselves, as three people die every day while waiting for an organ donor while 415 Scots were saved last year by a transplant.

It is true that there will always be personal or ethical reasons why some people do not choose to donate and it should always remain a choice not an edict.

What concerns me is that many of us do not make a choice at all.

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No one wants to contemplate their own or their loved ones’ mortality so we simply don’t do it until it is too late.

If you have not made a choice then it creates a heart-breakingly difficult situation for family and for doctors to navigate.

When you are struck down with grief, the last thing you want is the agony of trying to do the right thing by your mother, husband or child.

An opt-out system would force people to think about what they want and to discuss it with their family before it is too late.

This system was brought in last year in Wales, where organ donation rates rose from 49 per cent before the bill to 59 per cent afterwards.

Scotland will have been watching how this pans out with interest and it can certainly help to shape any future decisions. But there comes a point when watching and waiting should be put aside, especially when people are dying every day because they cannot get a replacement organ.

Ministers dragged their feet about the whole thing before the SNP voted against former Labour MSP Anne McTaggart’s bill earlier this year. A consultation was promised and duly arrived a prompt 10 months later, urging people to give their views.

This issue cannot be kicked into the long grass, not least because a poll commissioned by the British Heart Foundation in September found that nearly 60 per cent of Scots would prefer an opt-out bill to the current system.

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It is time for action, for the sake of hundreds of Scots languishing on waiting lists for the organs they need to survive.

Labour MSP Mark Griffin launched proposals this week for a new opt-out organ donation bill and rightly called for Parliament to get a move on.

The greatest gift they could receive this Christmas would be more time.