Presumed consent: nationalising our organs

Spiked, 7th August 2012

The UK National Health Service (NHS) has recently considered what is being called ‘the biggest shake-up of the ethical, legal and professional rules governing transplants’. Most of what has been discussed has been uncontroversial, such as new technologies being introduced to store organs better and new ‘financial rewards for intensive-care units for every organ they provide’, raising rewards closer to that of other European nations. What does raise an eyebrow, however, is the possible introduction of an organ-donation system based on ‘presumed consent’.

Under the current system of organ donation, consent for organs to be taken for transplantation must have been given either prior to death or by the deceased’s family members after death. Changing to a ‘presumed consent’ system would mean that upon death, all would be presumed to consent to having their organs used for medical purposes. Families with objections to having their loved one’s organs used are given the chance to opt out, but they have to do so actively.

The idea of moving to a system of presumed consent is not a new one. It has been floated a few times in the past few years, notably by former UK prime minister Gordon Brown in 2008. There is clearly a shortage of organs available for transplant – and lives would be saved if more became available. Presumed consent, however, is not a justifiable system.

Presuming consent would essentially end the idea of organ donation. No longer will people decide that – due to compassion, personal duty to their fellow human beings, or generosity – they will leave a part of their body to help someone else after they die. Rather, people will become organ conscripts, with the opt-out option working in a similar way to conscientious objection. Just as wartime conscription does away with people’s right to decide whether to serve in battle on the basis of duty or to help others, organ conscription does something similar.

As Professor John Fabre from King’s College London, a former president of the British Transplantation Society, put it in 2008, when this idea was last floated: ‘Presumed consent would degrade the ethical framework of our society and change a system of organ donation based on generosity and compassion into one of the state taking back what it thinks is its, while intruding on one of the most personal and delicate moments of a family’s life.’

While it is arguably true that we all should have a sense of duty to help out our fellow human beings, including by allowing for our organs to be used to save lives after ours is over, this a purely moral argument. To assume that people do give consent takes away the ethical decision-making process. While the organs of dead people may be highly useful, to presume consent – or rather, to get no consent – treats people as nothing more than pieces of meat. Humans should be seen as ends-in-themselves, as autonomous beings with no inherent obligation to anyone else. The proposal for presumed consent assumes we have an obligation, just throwing in a conscientious-objector clause to suit the religious types who might kick up a bit of fuss.

In essence, our bodies would become the property of the state. No longer would we be free autonomous individuals, but rather we would become nationalised property that the state reclaims after our death. Any society that respects individual autonomy should not view an individual’s body as public property purely by default.

Over 200 years ago, the German philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that enlightenment was defined by humans having ‘the courage to use [their] own reason’. If we regard ours as an enlightened society, then we should be allowed to exercise our own reason and decide for ourselves whether or not our deceased bodies can be used by someone else.


The UK Judges Blowing Free Speech Sky High

OriginalGreasySpoon, 3rd August 2012

After a two-and-a-half year struggle to clear his name, 26-year-old Paul Chambers has had his conviction overturned. Charged for sending a message of a ‘menacing character’ under the Communications Act of 2003, Chamber’s crime was rather trivial. After being caused a personal inconvenience by Robin Hood airport in Nottingham, he tweeted ‘You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!’. What is not trivial however, is the fall out of this case.

It’s glaringly obvious that the tweet was a joke. Terrorists don’t generally announce their plan with a week-and-a-half warning, especially on Twitter. Whether or not the joke was funny or not is an irrelevance; the basic fact is that a man was arrested and sent to trial for making a joke. There are innumerous references to Eastern Europe that can, and have, been made, such as, for example Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novel The Joke (1967).

While comparisons between this and modern Britain would be a bit hysterical, the fact that this can happen shows how illiberal society has become. Jokes made in regimes which are opposed to liberty and free speech often react with state force under justifications of being a threat to the state and public order. Any society that professes to believe in free speech should not lock up a man who makes a joke in poor taste; yet that is exactly what as happened.

Thanks to a high-profile campaign of celebrities such a Stephen Frye, Chambers the menacing tweeter had his conviction overturned. However, while it is always good to see celebrities defending freedom of speech, the same names that defended Chambers remain conspicuously absent from the case of Welsh student Liam Stacey.

Liam Stacey was also convicted of posting a tweet deemed unacceptable by the state, which sentenced him to 56 weeks in prison. After footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed midway through a football match earlier in the year, Stacey made a pretty nasty joke about him followed by a string of racist taunts. As abhorrent as Stacey’s tweets were, they should be no grounds for arrest. The posting of unpleasant words online should be no business of the state. Free speech is only free when everyone’s right to it is defended, even if what they have to say is not very nice.

The whole idea of convicting people for posting jokes online, be they unfunny, unpleasant, or otherwise, seems to most people ridiculous. Only some detached from society could think that Twitter jokes constitute a terror threat. So, of course, it is no surprise that a judge made this decision. In a time when the public are not trusted to make decisions for and among themselves, and expert technocrats are delegated the role of choosing for them, this case highlights the importance of juries. A trial by your peers allows for a sample of general society to decide if someone’s actions are worthy punishment or not. Surely a sample of the population – more than an unelected judge- would be able to see both cases in contexts; someone posting foolish things online.

In praise of the angry sailor

The media tends to fawn over athletes who act humbly and in a ‘sportsman-like’ manner. Showing emotion when losing isn’t completely frowned upon, so long as it’s the right emotion. Think tennis player Andy Murray bawling his eyes out after losing Wimbledon or Judo Olympian Euan Berton’s sorrow – those are good emotions, we’re told.

Team GB sailor Ben Ainslie breaks the mould. He takes winning seriously and is prepared to rage at anyone he perceives to be getting in his way. In the Australian sailing championships last year, he felt that a boat full of journalists was getting too close to his. Rather than suck it up and ignore it, he dived into the water, swam over to the offending boat and confronted those on board.

The Olympian has lived up to his reputation at London 2012. He gave a rude gesture to his Danish competitor in one event, and then angrily accused a Danish and Dutch sailor of conspiring against him.

While jumping out of your boat when in a sailing race may not be the best route to a gold medal, Ainslie’s commitment to winning, and his obvious frustration when he doesn’t, is just what Team GB needs to rack up the medals. What makes this angry sailor so great is his ruthless determination, which he isn’t afraid to show, and his healthy rage when he falls short of his own expectations.

We should celebrate ‘body fascism’ at the Olympics

Spiked, 3rd August 2012

Yesterday Rupert Murdoch provoked controversy by tweeting that the reason for the UK and USA’s poor performance vis-à-vis China is due to lack of emphasis on competition in schools. The Newscorp boss said: ‘No wonder China leading in medals while US and UK mainly teach competitive sport a bad thing.’

I’m no great fan of Murdoch, but on this he may have a point. There are have been many stories recently about sports days in schools being changed from events designed for students to exert themselves and win prizes, to ‘fun’ days for all to take part in – celebrating the slow and fast, the fit and fat, the athletic and and the non-athletic. The idea is often promoted that winning and losing does not matter; it is the taking part that counts. Now, I’m not saying that those who fail to do well in sporting and physical activities should be ridiculed. But I have serious issues with the idea that winning and physically excelling in a sport is somehow a bad thing. Especially when this creates a culture in which producing athletes of Olympics standards becomes a problem.

The vanguard of the all-must-have-prizes movement at the London 2012 Olympics is anti-Olympic protest group the Counter Olympics Network (CON). This ragbag of individuals takes anti-excellence and anti-winning sentiment to a new level. On its website, CON denounces the Olympics for promoting what it calls the ‘body fascism mentality of elite sports’.

By this bizarre logic, striving for sporting excellence in some way is equated with social Darwinism and the eugenics of the Nazis. Is that right? Are the extraordinary accomplishments of Olympians like Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen or Jamaican runner Usain Bolt really reminiscent of Nietzsche’s ubermenschen? It’s all pretty mad.

We should celebrate ‘body fascism’ at the Olympics – namely the physical and mental discipline that is necessary for sportspeople to hone their bodies into those of Olympians.

Why Bradley Wiggins is wrong about cycle helmets

Spiked, 2nd August 2012

Yesterday, a man riding a bicycle was killed near the Olympic Park after a collision with an official London 2012 bus that was carrying members of the media. On the same day, Bradley Wiggins of Team GB won a gold medal in the men’s cycling road time trial.

As a result of the man’s tragic death, Wiggins has called for legislation ensuring that safety helmets are made mandatory for cyclists. Claiming that it is ‘dangerous and London is a busy city and a lot of traffic’, Wiggins deems it necessary for the government to start ‘legalising helmets to make them the law to wear’.

Tom Chivers in the Telegraph points out that putting the grey matter inside our skulls inside a ‘polystyrene box will not allow you safely to throw it against concrete without the contents being just as badly shaken as had the “protection” not been present’. Safety helmets, Chivers argues, only really protect against nasty cuts and scrapes. That’s fine for a child learning to ride a bike for the first time, but it is of little use to a cyclist navigating his or her way through the buses and cars on a busy London street.

Technicalities of the merits of safety helmets aside, such a law would be yet another regulation of the lives of individuals by the state. Whether or not it is beneficial to wear a helmet when riding through the roads of London, it’s the cyclist’s responsibility to decide what protective clothing to wear, if any. While cycling accidents are tragic, it shouldn’t be the state’s role to step in and tell people what to wear on their bike to try to prevent these injuries and deaths. Further regulation of everyday life is not needed and trying to legislate away these sorts of tragedies is not realistic.

Why plastic bags should be free

Spiked, 2nd August 2012

Much like plastic bags, the campaign against them constantly lingers in the air and won’t degrade away. After recent figures showed a five per cent increase in plastic-bag use in England, activists from groups like the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE), Keep Britain Tidy, the Marine Conservation Society (MCS) and Surfers Against Sewage are calling for England to follow in the green footsteps of the rest of the United Kingdom, and charge shoppers for each bag they use.

Plastic bags are blamed for killing wildlife, as animals mistake them for food or become entangled in them. They are accused of blighting the landscape as litter, as well as using up oil and contributing carbon emissions when they are being produced. However, this plastic-bag panic is out of proportion to reality. While plastic bags do contribute to waste, especially considering that they supposedly take between 400 and 1,000 years to degrade, the actual amount that they contribute overall is minimal.

Individually, a plastic bag weighs about eight grams. In total, we use about 10 billion of them a year, adding up to around 80,000 tonnes of plastic bags. A large number, perhaps, but not when compared with total municipal waste. The total amount of household waste produced each year is 29.6million tonnes. This means that plastic bags make up a mere 0.27 per cent of what we all throw away every year. This percentage would become even smaller if we were to include commercial and industrial waste in our calculations.

The total amount of oil used to produce plastic bags is also exaggerated, considering that most plastic bags are made using naphtha, a part of crude oil that isn’t used for much else and would probably be burnt away otherwise.

So what’s going on here? Why the panic about a simple little bag? The assault on plastic bags is really an assault on consumerism. There is a prevailing view among the green and mighty that consumerism is bad. It is portrayed as being a modern-day vice, devoid of meaning, something which atomises society, corrupting us through crude materialism and distracting us from more important issues.

Plastic bags are an outward reflection of the ease with which people can buy goods and take them home. People now have the disposable income to enter a shop unexpectedly and buy a load of stuff, and plastic bags mean they can rest assured they they will have the means to carry their purchases. How often do people returning home from work decide, on a whim, to make a quick stop at Tesco Express to buy a few items of food? How frequently, perhaps on a journey past Oxford Street, are we drawn into a sale by a piece of attractive clobber? Such nonchalant consumption would be made more difficult, perhaps more expensive, without shops’ provision of handy, free plastic bags.

By ridding the world of these sinful bags, consumption as we know and enjoy it would change. Before we left the house, we would have to decide whether to bring along canvas carrier bags or shove a ‘bag for life’ in our pockets, just in case we decided to buy a few goods later on in the day. We would have to stop and think: ‘Will I consume today?’ The luxury of modern-day consumption – which is its ease and the fact it can now be done on a whim – would be undermined. In the eyes of a handful of elitist green campaigners, this would be a good thing – but not for the rest of us.

Fewer plastic bags would also cause more inconvenience. Beyond their everyday and intended purpose of bringing home purchases, plastic bags are used for lots more. If the more out-there greens who actually want to ban plastic bags got their way, then the cyclist would have to find an alternative to the simple trick of covering his seat with a plastic bag to keep it dry; taking drinks to a party in a plastic bag that you could then just leave at the host’s house would no longer be an option. And when your black bin-liners run out, using a carrier bag as a substitute would be a thing of the past.

The waste from plastic bags is minimal when compared with overall waste. And the reason these thin pieces of plastic fashioned with handles are so prevalent is because they are incredibly useful. The campaign against them amounts to little more than a thinly veiled attack on the consumption and alleged littering habits of the masses.

Give the anti-Olympics protesters a wooden spoon

Spiked, 1st August 2012

On Saturday the vanguard of anti-Olympics moaners, the Counter Olympics Network, held a demonstration in Bow, London. The protest focused on a smorgasbord of issues, from missiles on the roofs of blocks of flats in East London, to the historic grievances of the Circassians ethnic group in Russia.

Like many modern protests, such as Occupy and the G20 protesters, these protesters had no clear aim or demands, instead amounting to little more than gathering of individuals with various gripes. There were anti-cuts campaigners, pro-disability rights campaigners, anti-‘militarisation’ of the Olympics campaigners, those decrying the corporate greed or gain or corruption, and anti-BP activists. For once, however, no Palestinian flags seemed to be present.

Although most of the grievances could be linked in some way to the Olympics, the diversity of it all made the protest rather meaningless. The overall message seemed to be: ‘The Olympics is causing some bad stuff, stop it.’ Hardly a realistic and concrete demand to take to the streets for!

The protest contrasted sharply with those competing in the Games. While the Olympians were focused on winning and striving towards goals, the losers protesting outside seemed to be striving towards nothing in particular.