The Exchange of Inmate Organs for Liberty: Diminishing the 'Yuck Factor' in the Bioethics Repugnance Debate
33 Pages Posted: 17 Apr 2013 Last revised: 19 Nov 2013
Date Written: April 15, 2013
Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour granted clemency to Jamie and Gladys Scott on December 29, 2010. This decision indefinitely suspended their double life sentences and freed them after 16 years in prison for armed robbery. The price of their liberty: Gladys’ kidney.
The story of the Scott Sisters’ release and the condition imposed upon Gladys Scott reflexively elicits an intense negative response on the part of the listener who likely is focusing on the “yuck factor” – a strong sentiment that what they just heard is unfair, unseemly, or just plain wrong.
What happens, then if the Scott Sisters’ story is replicated – if it is multiplied across prison populations? Were programs put into place that allowed prison inmates to trade their kidneys (or portions of their lungs, livers or pancreases) for liberty, it follows that the “yuck factor” would be multiplied exponentially. However, it must be noted that in confecting his peculiar clemency condition, Governor Barbour chose a course of action that was, ironically, unobjectionable to the civil rights community (including the state’s Black activist community) that was clamoring for the release of the Scott Sisters. If one were to cast the civil rights community as guardians of (or at least stakeholders regarding) the interests of poor and minority communities, the Scott Sister’s clemency case is particularly intriguing in that they cheered, rather than crying, “Yuck!” and objecting to the terms of release imposed by the Governor. The outcry from some bioethicists notwithstanding, this scenario begs the question of why we should not allow other prisoners – those to whom serendipity has not provided an ailing sister – to do the same and whether it is in fact possible to do so while avoiding, or at least mitigating repugnance.
This article contemplates whether the National Organ Transplant Act’s (“NOTA”) prohibition against the trading of organs for “valuable consideration” should include an exception that would allow state and federal prison inmates to donate organs in exchange for release or credit toward release. Such a stance surely raises questions regarding whether the state would be coercing the forfeiture of body parts as punishment or in exchange for freedom. Moreover, critics may question the potential effects on the criminal justice system of allowing those facing incarceration to bargain their bodies, and conceivably, their long-term health, in exchange for reduced prison terms. Therefore, such an inmate organ donation program is only feasible if a system is confected to remove the “yuck factor” ostensibly by removing coercion from the equation and by addressing the other concerns that mirror those addressed in the living donor sales debate. Such a program would need to reframe the legal context in which the Scott Sisters’ clemency condition was crafted into one in which a great measure of power and choice resides instead in the hands of the inmate participants.
Keywords: repugnance, Scott Sisters, kidney, interest convergence, yuck factor, organ donation, bioethics
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