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Presumed Consent: A Crusade to Save Lives

John Mitchell has been waiting for more than a year for a new heart. His only lifeline now is a 24-hour a day IV pack that keeps his ailing heart going...

Mitchell is one of 72,000 Americans in dire need of a heart transplant. "I know, as a person who is on the heart transplant waiting list, that you have a finite period of time," says Mitchell.

Just how great is the need? At least 6,000 people a year would say it's very great, That's the number who died last year waiting for an organ that never came, according to Phil Berry, M.D.

Texas physician Phil Berry, a liver transplant recipient himself, says the organ donor shortage in this country can be considerably eased, if not solved, by adopting a proposed new law called "presumed consent."

Berry describes the law. "Every one is presumed to be a donor unless they opt out," he says. "We're asking those who don't want to be organ donors to act, to sign a statement that says they don't want to be organ donors."

Currently, organs are almost always donated by a process known as "informed consent," in which a patient has either signed a donor card or informed family they wish to be a donor if they die unexpectedly.

The Texas legislature is now considering changing state law to "presumed consent." Advocates argue that in European countries with the statute, the number of organ donations has increased dramatically. But critics counter that Americans may not be ready for it.

Maureen Sweeny, of the division of organ transplant at Baylor College Medical Center in Houston, Texas, supports the measure but worries that freedom of choice could be the finer point. She comments,"I'm not sure Texans, or Americans for that matter, are ready yet culturally to have somebody mandate that you have to give your organs if you're brain dead. When you take away people's free will around something," she says, "it has the potential to backfire."

People in dire need of an organ like John Mitchell, however, can't afford any more delays. So Dr. Phil Berry, continues his crusade. "I want people to understand that my story could be their story," says Berry. "They could be the next one on the transplant list."

That list increases by 10% every year. It could, though, become significantly shorter if lawmakers decide that just by dying, a patient may have made his final decision on whether or not to donate.

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