Child's lung transplant need presents complex ethical dilemma

Sarah Murnaghan, 10, left, with an unidentified child. Sarah is waiting for a lung transplant.

(CBS News) Time is running out for a little girl in Pennsylvania. She needs a lung transplant, but rules prevent children her age from getting lungs from adults. Her parents are fighting to change that, and now the battle is now reaching all the way to the Obama administration.

There's a complex ethical dilemma at the center of this case, but for many, it seems unthinkable not to intervene.

Sarah Murnaghan, 10, has end-stage cystic fibrosis. Doctors at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia say a lung transplant is her only chance of survival.

Sarah's mother Janet Murnaghan said, "When we came down to the ICU last night our doctors told us they thought we had weeks. Not months."

Because of longstanding transplant policy, Sarah is only eligible for lungs from a child donor, as opposed to adult lungs, which are far more available. Janet Murnaghan said, "To say that Sarah and the other children that are waiting are going to be left to die, it's just really devastating, and just not a human response."

Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said, "First, as a mother and grandmother, I can't imagine anything more agonizing than what the Murnaghans are going through."

Several Pennsylvania lawmakers joined the family in petitioning Sebelius to make an exception for Sarah.

Rep. Lou Barletta, R-Pa., told Sebelius, "Time is running out, please suspend the rules until we look at this policy, which we all believe is flawed."

Sebelius asked for a policy review and says she's sympathetic, but explained the rules are there for a reason. She said, "Because lungs are different than other organs, that it's based on the survivability."

Barletta argued, "This is different. Sarah's case is different. Doctors have said she could survive with an adult lung. It can be modified to save her life. Why wouldn't we do it?"

Bioethicist Dr. Art Caplan, director of NYU Langone Medical Center Division of Medical Ethics, says it's because pediatric lung recipients generally face greater risks. "What the parents want to do for their child isn't necessarily the best use of the scarce supply of organs," he said.

While Sarah's doctors say they're confident they can perform a successful transplant, making an exception for her is not the obvious choice.

"We don't have a situation where we're simply saying, 'Save me or don't save me,' we're saying 'Save me as opposed to someone else' -- that's the toughest ethical problem I think that can arise in medicine," Caplan said.

But he says there is an argument for reevaluating the rules when it comes to children and lung transplants.

At this point, Sarah's options appear to be limited, because potential policy changes could very well take more time than she has. For people who want to help, Caplan says the best thing to do is to sign up for organ donation.

Watch Elaine Quijano's full report above.