The Big Donor Show

by Russ Roberts on May 29, 2007

in Health

The BBC reports on the outcry over a reality show where a terminally ill patient will decide who gets one of her kidneys:

A Dutch TV station says it will go ahead with a
programme in which a terminally ill woman selects one of three patients
to receive her kidneys.

Political parties have called for The Big Donor Show to
be scrapped, but broadcaster BNN says it will highlight the country’s
shortage of organ donors.

"It’s a crazy idea," said Joop Atsma, of the ruling Christian Democrat Party.

"It can’t be possible that, in the Netherlands, people vote about who’s getting a kidney," he told the BBC.

Sounds like a sure ratings winner. But the broadcasting station, BNN, has a political and educational motive as well:

The former director of TV station BNN, Bart de Graaff, died from kidney
failure aged 35 after spending years on a transplant waiting list.

"The chance for a kidney for the contestants is 33%,"
said the station’s current chairman, Laurens Drillich. "This is much
higher than that for people on a waiting list."

"We think that is disastrous, so we are acting in a shocking way to bring attention to this problem."

"For years and years we have had problems in the
Netherlands with organ donations and especially kidney donations,"
agreed Alexander Pechtold of D-66, the Dutch social liberal party.

"You can have a discussion about if this is distasteful,
but finally we have a public debate," he told BBC Radio 4’s Today

As you might expect, the kidney establishment isn’t too keen on the spotlight:

The Dutch donor authority has condemned the show, as have kidney specialists in the UK.

"The scenario portrayed in this programme is ethically
totally unacceptable," said Professor John Feehally, who has just ended
his term as president of the UK’s Renal Association.

"The show will not further understanding of  transplants," he added. "Instead it will cause confusion and anxiety."

As a writer at the British Guardian puts it:

"My first reaction, probably everyone’s reaction, is
that this is as dangerously near as we’ve got to a TV programme playing
God," said Julia Raeside of the Guardian newspaper.

And how is the decision made now in the UK? The answer is earlier in the article from Professor Feehally, the outgoing head of the UK Renal Association.

"The set up of the programme bears no relationship to the way decisions are made about transplants in the real world," he said.

"Living donors can choose altruistically to give one of their kidneys – usually to a family member.

"If organs become available after someone dies, health
professionals with access to detailed information about those waiting
for a transplant make objective decisions about who should receive
those particular kidneys."

Health professionals with detailed information making objective decisions. Sounds so scientific. Objective decisions? Impossible. A better word would be arbitrary. Or maybe random. Or maybe selfish. With people dying because there aren’t enough kidneys for transplant, how would you describe someone who gives the current system a patina of objectivity?


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