The Organ Donation Law in the UK Is Changing: Here’s What You Need To Know

On 20th May 2020 adults in England will be automatically enrolled as an organ donor unless they explicitly choose to opt-out.

The following will help provide some clarity around the law change regarding organ donation in the UK, as well as offering some helpful organ donation facts.


What Is Organ Donation?

Organ (and tissue) donation is the act of giving your organ(s) and/or tissue to other people, after you die, in order to help save, or improve, their lives.

It is possible that one organ donor can save the lives of up to 9 people, and by donating tissue a recipient’s life can be vastly improved. An example of tissue donation would be providing a cornea to help restore someone’s sight or some skin to help treat a person who had suffered severe burns or the loss of their epidermis in a motorcycle accident.


What Is The Current NHS Organ Donation Law?

Currently the legislation around organ donation is such that people living in England over the age of 18 years old are required to ‘opt-in’ in order to donate their organs after they die. In other words, in order to be considered an organ donor you need to actively register as one.


Who Will Be Affected?

Image of a busy crosswalk during the middle of the day

As of the 20th May 2020, all adults in England will automatically be considered an organ donor when they die unless:

  1. They have formally chosen to ‘opt-out’ of the register, or
  2. They fall into one of the excluded categories

There are also a small number of groups that will be excluded from the register. These are:

  • Anyone aged 17 or younger.
  • People who do not have the mental capacity to understand the new law and, therefore, take appropriate action.
  • Visitors to England, as well as those who are not living in the country voluntarily.
  • People who had lived in England for less than 1 year prior to their death.


Why Is The Law Changing?

In short, the law is changing in order to help save more lives in England. Unfortunately, every day approximately 3 people die as a result of waiting for an organ they do not receive in time. In a year this equates to more than 1,000 deaths that could have been prevented, had an organ been available.

When the law was given Royal Assent on 15th March 2019, there were over 6,000 patients on the waiting list for an organ donation.

Whilst much of the population agree, in principle, with organ donation, too few have made it explicitly clear that they would be willing to donate their organs upon their death. This could be because they have not informed their families or have simply not formally recorded this decision. Currently only 1% of eligible people in England die in circumstances that would permit their organs to be donated. Put another way, approximately 80% of people in England support organ donation yet less than half of that number have chosen to opt-in.

As a result, the decision of organ donation falls to next of kin, who will understandably be placed in a difficult position in making that decision on behalf of their loved one (currently less than half of families give permission for their loved ones’ organs to be donated).

The new legislation is also known as ‘Max and Keira’s Law’ in honor of the boy who received a heart and the girl who donated it.


What Is The Benefit Of Changing The Law?

Macro image of a wooden gavel

The change in the law will result in a greater number of organ donors and will therefore help save and improve the lives of many individuals in need of organ and tissue transplants.

Current estimates suggest that upwards of 700 additional transplants could be provided each year by 2023.

How Will The Organ Donation Process Work?

If you elect to remain a registered organ donor, your organs will be considered eligible for donation upon your death.

The most typical organs used in transplants include the heart, liver, kidneys, lungs, pancreas, bones, intestinal organs, arteries and nervous tissue. These organs are retrieved by specialist surgeons under usual operating theatre standards and the body will be treated with the same level of care and respect, with any incisions discreetly closed afterwards.


So What Do I Need To Do?

Picture of a woman studying at a coffee table

If you do not want to be considered an organ donor, you need to record your opt-out decision on the NHS Organ Donor Register. However, if you are happy to donate your organs upon your death, you will not need to do anything as you will automatically be considered a donor once the law comes into effect.

It is important to note, too, that you can choose to opt-out at any time as there is no deadline to do so, either before or after the change comes to pass.

Furthermore, if you have previously declared that you do not want to donate any/some of your organs, you will not need to re-register.

However, if you formally request for your details to be removed from the register altogether, any previous donation decisions you had made will be removed from the register, alongside your personal details. Effectively this will mean there is no recorded decision for you which, in an ‘opt-out’ system, will mean you have agreed to donate your organs upon death.

If you’re not sure if your medical conditions would rule you out as an organ donor, it may be best to speak to your doctor. Whilst you may want to donate your organs, it is important that those treating the recipient can be sure that the organs will support their care and ongoing life. If you find you cannot donate your organs, you can store this information on your MedicAlert record so that it is accessible at all times.


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