Plan calls for free funerals for organ donors, but would it work?

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(CBS/AP) Can free funerals solve the persistent shortage of donor organs?

The U.K-based Nuffield Council on Bioethics thinks so. It's published a report recommending that the British government pay for funerals of recently deceased organ donors.

The funerals would only be covered for people who register to donate their organs upon death. What if you decide to donate a kidney while you're alive? No free funeral for you.

"We have ruled out giving people a direct financial incentive to donate," said report co-author Keith Rigg, a transplant surgeon at Nottingham University Hospital. Rigg told reporters that the free funeral idea would not benefit the donor but might help surviving relatives at a difficult time.

The proposal is similar to how medical schools often cover burial or cremation costs of people who donate their bodies to science, he said.

The proposal aims to curb a desperate shortage of donor organs. In the U.K, there are 18 million are registered organ donors, but only about 1,000 people a year actually donate organs - mostly because few die in circumstances that allow their organs to be donated. Britain has among the lowest donation rates in Europe and half the rate of the U.S., according to the report's authors.

"Paying for the funerals of organ donors would be ethically justified - no harm can come to the donor, and it would be a form of recognition from society," Professor Dame Marilyn Strathern, who chaired the report committee, said in a written statement. "We think a pilot scheme to test the public response to the idea is worth trying, alongside other schemes."

Not all ethicists are convinced this plan would work.

"Associating free funerals with organ donation is an odd reward," said Dr. Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "It reminds people of how they get to be an organ donor and may make them nervous."

Would this proposed plan work in the U.S., where 20 people on donation waiting lists die each day due to organ shortages?

Dr. Robert Gaston, president of the American Society of Transplantation, told CBS News the British proposal was "insightful," but that doesn't necessarily mean it would fly on our side of the Atlantic.

"It's very murky legally," said Gaston. "There is no clear legal precedent for who represents the deceased - who is family, who is not family?" The U.S. also passed the Organ Transplant Act in 1984 that prevents any compensation for donors so a proposal like this would require that law be changed.

Gaston's society supports the idea of a completely altruistic organ donation, free of any compensation. But he conceded organ shortage is an "overwhelming" issue in the U.S.

"A lot of people who support the altruistic system say any encouragement is unethical," Gaston said. "Our society would support new ways that would preserve the integrity of the donor and the donor family."

Would you donate your organs for a free funeral?

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