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Clinical review: Moral assumptions and the process of organ donation in the intensive care unit

Stephen Streat

Author Affiliations

Intensivist, Department of Critical Care Medicine, Auckland Hospital, New Zealand

Critical Care 2004, 8:382-388  doi:10.1186/cc2876

Published: 21 May 2004


The objective of the present article is to review moral assumptions underlying organ donation in the intensive care unit. Data sources used include personal experience, and a Medline search and a non-Medline search of relevant English-language literature. The study selection included articles concerning organ donation. All data were extracted and analysed by the author. In terms of data synthesis, a rational, utilitarian moral perspective dominates, and has captured and circumscribed, the language and discourse of organ donation. Examples include "the problem is organ shortage", "moral or social duty or responsibility to donate", "moral responsibility to advocate for donation", "requesting organs" or "asking for organs", "trained requesters", "pro-donation support persons", "persuasion" and defining "maximising donor numbers" as the objective while impugning the moral validity of nonrational family objections to organ donation. Organ donation has recently been described by intensivists in a morally neutral way as an "option" that they should "offer", as "part of good end-of-life care", to families of appropriate patients. In conclusion, the review shows that a rational utilitarian framework does not adequately encompass interpersonal interactions during organ donation. A morally neutral position frees intensivists to ensure that clinical and interpersonal processes in organ donation are performed to exemplary standards, and should more robustly reflect societal acceptability of organ donation (although it may or may not "produce more donors").

ethics; intensive care units; language; organ donation; persuasive communication