Convicts Are Entitled To Your Organs, Shouldn’t You Be Entitled To Theirs?

As I surfed the web looking for Blog ideas I ran across an old story with as many tentacles as a giant squid.  Each tentacle more controversial and thought provoking than the last. Just the two issues I’m covering here generate enough legal and ethical questions to keep law firms, bioethicists, lawmakers and editorial writers busy for hundreds of years. 

Issue number oneIn December of 2002 a twice-convicted armed robber received a heart transplant at Stanford University Medical Center in California at taxpayer’s expense.  Here’s an excerpt of the story from the British Medical Journal (BMJ) (Follow the link for the complete story). Josefson Nebraska  April 6, 2002 British Medical Journal  “A Californian man has become the first prison inmate in the United States to receive a heart transplant, sparking a debate over the ethics of giving a prisoner an all expenses paid, lifesaving transplant when other citizens without sufficient funds or insurance are denied this opportunity.   In spite of the State of California’s expenditures and the Stanford University Medical Center’s expertise, the inmate transplant patient died a year later.  California corrections officials admitted he was “not a model transplant patient” and did not follow the strict medical rules laid out for transplant recipients.”

“What?” you say, “How can this happen?” Well, in 1976 the US Supreme Court ruled that prisoners have a constitutional right to equal medical care, stating that “deliberate indifference” to a prisoner’s health problems constituted cruel and unusual punishment under the provisions of the eighth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.  

The incident raises at least one very interesting question: If a convicted felon is entitled to our organs at our expense, should we be entitled to their organs without their permission  if they die while incarcerated?  If we want to alleviate the organ shortage the argument may have merit.  Right now there are about 2,200,000 prisoners in State and Federal prisons and jails.  That’s a lot of tissue and organs.  So, what’s your opinion?

Issue number two:  It has been suggested in several quarters that prisoners condemned to death should be able to bargain their organs for a reduction in sentence or perhaps reducing their death sentence to life without parole.  The discussion gained enough visibility to get the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) to put the matter before their ethics committee. Here’s an excerpt from the UNOS Ethics Committee: Ethics of Organ Donation From Condemned Prisoners. “Any law or proposal that allows a person to trade an organ for a reduction in sentence, particularly a sentence from death to life in prison, raises numerous issues. Application of the death penalty is spasmodic and seemingly discriminatorily applied, which would suggest that these types of proposals would be coercive to particular classes of individuals–minorities and the poor. Would the reduction in sentence apply to the offer to donate, or would it only be honored if the act of donation took place? If the act of donation would exclusively qualify for the reduction in sentence, then the law or policy would discriminate against individuals found to be medically unsuitable to donate organs.” The committee goes on to say, “Were prisoners allowed to trade a kidney to mitigate a death sentence, it may affect the actual imposition of the death penalty. With greater publicity surrounding these types of proposals/laws, potential jurors could be influenced and ultimately impose the death penalty more often with a potential societal benefit in mind. Jurors might hope that the convicted persons would choose to trade their kidney for their life. This would present a gross inequity for those unable or unwilling to donate a kidney and who might otherwise have not received a death sentence. In conclusion; the UNOS Ethics Committee has raised a small number of the many issues regarding organ donation from condemned prisoners. The Committee opposes any strategy or proposed statute regarding organ donation from condemned prisoners until all of the potential ethical concerns have been satisfactorily addressed.”   

Enough food for thought?  Obviously we need to increase the number of organs and organizations like UNOS ( and its offshoots; LifeSharers (  and others are doing what they can.  But, it’s not enough.  Too many people are still dying!!!  As a society don’t you think we have a responsibility to explore every available option.  Don’t you think we have a responsibility to “stop the dying” as soon as possible? Your opinion is important — please comment and encourage others to read and comment on these blogs.

If you are interested in the number of prisoners in your area and more information on prisons generally visit the Federal Bureau of Prisons site at    


About Bob Aronson

Bob Aronson is a former journalist, a Minnesota Governor's Press Secretary and talk show host. For nearly a quarter of a century, he led the Aronson Partnership, a Minnesota-based communications consultancy that prepared corporate and government executives for crisis situations, regulatory testimony, media interviews and Presentations. Among his clients were all three U.S. Mayo Clinic locations, 3M, general Mills, CH2M Hill, the U.S. Department of Energy and scores more. In 2007 bob had a heart transplant after suffering from idiopathic dilated cardiomyopathy for 12 years. Shortly after he got his new heart he founded the now 4,300 member Facebook support group, Organ Transplant Initiative. At the same time, he established the Bob's Newheart blog where he has posted nearly 300 columns on organ donation, transplantation and other health related issues. The Viewpoint blog was started in late 2016 and bears the name of the Radio Talk show Bob did from 1966 until 1974, when he resigned to become Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich first Press secretary. Bob and his artist wife Robin, live in Jacksonville, Florida with their two dogs, Reilly and Ziggy. Bob is also a woodworker and makes all of the furnishings for Robin's art festival booth. He also makes one of a kind jewelry or "memories" boxes that he donates to select transplant patients, caregivers, donor families and others who have somehow contributed to making life easier for the ill, the elderly and the less fortunate. Bob is in the final stages of editing two full-length novels that will be available on Kindle when ready for release sometime in early 2017. One is a sci fi novel about an amazing discovery near Roswell, New Mexico and you will be surprised to find it has nothing to do with the Roswell story everyone knows. It features a woman scientist who investigates impact craters for the U.S. Department of the Interior, Dr. Rita Sylvester and her female student intern. The other book is a political thriller that introduces a new hero to the genre, Fargo Dennison.

Posted on February 11, 2008, in Organs from convicted felons. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Bob, I used to be a bigtime Sherrif Joe Arpaio fan and I felt that criminals should be severely punished and subject to in inhumane conditions. Ironically, I never conceived that I’d ever be on the wrong side of the law…

    This morning, my wife woke up at about noon depressed and pill ridden because of our bleak outlook. A few moments ago she was crying with me as I tried to comfort her. She talked about killing herself. My young daughter is terrified that something will happen to us. Our family is poor, has lost all dignity, and have been subject to nazi like police treatment within our home.

    Dinners at restaurants are gone as are the trips and vacations. The vehicles are gone. The home is gone. The credit cards and bank accounts are gone. The friends are gone. Hope is gone too, the only thing we have left is depression, constant anxiety and fear. I personally don’t live anymore, I simply exist waiting for my daughter to get older so that I can just die.

    I have no right to ask for sympathy from nobody since I showed no sympathy when things were working out well for me. Looking back, I was a rather hateful individual with my radical thoughts that we should nuke Iraq…that we should shoot illegal immigrants on sight…that we should fry the prisoners.

    I honestly deserve all of this, not for my criminal acts but for the criminal point of view that I used to express. The innocents here are my wife and daughter. They are in their rooms, I’m going to go check up on them now.


  2. Bob, I am not in prison. As to your issues above:

    “…right now there are about 2,200,000 prisoners in State and Federal prisons and jails. That’s a lot of tissue and organs. So, what’s your opinion?”

    Since there is a need for organs, prisoners should be given forms of consent for organ harvest upon their death. I believe that many would sign up, but others may not want to for personal reasons.

    “…prisoners condemned to death should be able to bargain their organs for a reduction in sentence…”

    I think that this is a very bad idea and I’ll give you an example why. In my case, I was offered a ‘plea deal’ which meant no prison, just probation.

    The prosecutor threatened that he would seek the maximum sentence (many years in prison) if I did not agree to take the plea agreement. He was very hostile and used this as a tool to his advantage. I feel that such bargaining can lead to very serious misuse and abuse.


  3. Bob, I am happy to hear that your transplant was a success. You look really good in that picture btw. This is a true blessing, especially for the lives of your wife, kids and grand kids.

    I would be happy to donate my organs to sustain another life upon my death, especially knowing that there will be a family or families out there who keep their loved ones for a few more years. Let me tell you a little about myself:

    I used to be a good asset to a particular billion dollar plus company, a highly productive citizen who paid his share of income, property, and other taxes every year. Other than a mortgage, I had no other liabilities.

    Today, I am totally unproductive, a drain upon society as a convicted felon. I am no longer to able to be productive as I have been hobbled by a criminal record and can no longer obtain employment in my field and honestly, I don’t have the will to work for crumbs.

    I’m sure that there are hundreds of thousands like me, who have learned their lesson, paid their debt to society, and want a fresh start. Current law makes this impossible.

    My life as I knew it is over, but if I were able to help another life with my organs, I would happily do it.


    • Jack….thank you for the note. I’d like to know more about you. You can remain anonymous if you like but I think people need to hear more from people with your experience. Are you still in prison?

      please write



  4. Okay, as a person with a bs in Criminal Justice I would not want a prisoner’s organ. Most of the people in prison are there for drug offenses and if they are there for murder or something then who knows what they were doing at the time of or prior to the offense. Also, the drugs they use to carry out executions through lethal injection make the organs next to impossible to be donated. In terms of prisoners given a reduced sentence for donating their organs I would weigh it against other factors , such as did the prisoner donate his/her organs because they felt it a nice thing to do or did they donate their organs so they could get early release and go live with Aunt Susie and continue with their old habits. What was the prisoners record like in prison? How many times was he written up and for what? If let out early is the person likely to recidivate?


  5. Isn’t this sort of a moot discussion? People who have been in prison for an extended period of time are considered high-risk donors, and are unlikely to be accepted as medically suitable for ANY recipient.


  1. Pingback: Convicts Are Entitled To Your Organs, Shouldn’t You Be Entitled To Theirs? | Health Insurance

  2. Pingback: Convicts Are Entitled To Your Organs, Shouldn’t You Be Entitled To Theirs? | Health Insurance

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