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Organ procurers take step against discrimination

The idea, advanced by the ethics committee for the United Network for Organ Sharing, was a radical one: discourage any organ donation that discriminates against a race or other class of people _ even if it means a life-sustaining heart or kidney might be sacrificed.

That principle received the blessings Thursday of most of the 33 members of the UNOS Board of Directors at a meeting in Nashville. But the board postponed a vote on the policy statement at a time when organ procurement organizations are desperate for direction on how to handle donations that may discriminate.

"The more people realize they have the right to direct the (organ) donations of their loved ones, the more heightened the problem will become," said Brian Brosnick, director of the Center for Organ Recovery and Education in Pittsburgh. "We can't spend a year or two studying this. The government needs to do something now."

At issue is the practice of "directed donation," where organs are pledged to a specific individual or generic group. At UNOS, which matches organs with transplant recipients, debate over directed donation was sparked by the story of Thomas Simons, published in The Times in January.

Simons, 24, a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer, was shot to death during a robbery in Bradenton by a black teenager. Simons' parents consented to the donation of his organs, but stipulated they go to "white recipients only."

Fearing the life-sustaining organs would otherwise be wasted, LifeLink, the organ procurement agency serving west-central Florida, agreed to abide by the parents' wishes. Told of the case later, the U.S. Office of Civil Rights said allocating organs to a specific race violated federal law.

That left organ procurers facing a dilemma that Brosnick frames this way:

"Everybody in the transplant community agrees it's wrong to discriminate against a class. But if a family wishes to direct a donation, and we fail to carry out the family's wishes, are we liable?"

Brosnick wrote a letter to the federal government seeking guidance on that question, but so far has received none. A UNOS policy statement would not be legally binding, but could stand as a guidepost for reform on a state-by-state basis.

Currently, just four states _ Utah, Virginia, Vermont and Ohio _ have laws restricting directed donation. Florida soon could become the fifth.

Saying the Simons case represented "the worst form of discrimination," state Sen. James T. "Jim" Hargrett Jr., D-Tampa, filed a bill in January to outlaw organ donations to racial or other generic groups. His proposal would leave unchanged the right to donate an organ to a specific individual.

The UNOS Ethics Committee statement said the acceptance of discriminatory directed donations would undermine society's confidence in transplantation and must be avoided "even if that requires the loss of one donor's organs."