Families of the dead who carried donor cards no longer have the last say concerning the removal of organs from their loved ones. Tomorrow new laws will come into force that will make the deceased person's wishes paramount.
Currently, even if people carry a donor card, their relatives can prevent doctors from harvesting their organs. About one in ten families have been reported to do so. The new laws have come into place as part of moves to tackle the chronic shortage of organ donors. Around 500 people a year die waiting for a transplant.
This change is expected to cause considerable anguish to relatives who do not wish to see their loved one go under the knife after death. In addition concerns that such a step would draw closer to the idea of presumed consent wherein people's organs would be taken for donation unless they expressly opted out.
At present over 8,000 people in the UK need a transplant, but the organ shortage would mean that fewer than 3,000 are carried out each year.
Chris Rudge of UK Transplant, which provides organ matching and allocation services, said: 'There is a critical shortage of donated organs and many more people could receive a life-saving transplant with the donor's wishes being given priority.'
Adrian McNeill, chief executive of the Human Tissue Authority, the body set up to police the Act, said: 'For the first time it is lawful for the deceased person's wishes to take precedence over anyone else's.
'People will be reassured that their wishes expressed while they were alive are now more likely to be followed.' Doctors in such cases are expected to reach an understanding with families. Doctors will be able to take organs only from people who have joined the NHS Organ Donor Register, are carrying a card or have given advance consent to medical staff. If a person has not made their wishes clear, their closest relative will still have the final say.
The British Medical Association said: 'The BMA is deeply worried about the shortage of organs for transplants and the loss of life as a result. People should be able to decide what happens to their tissue or body after death and the BMA would encourage individuals to make that decision and talk to their relatives about their wishes.
'If people have indicated their preferences their wishes should be respected. It would also help relatives at the very difficult time of bereavement.'
Annie Kiff-Wood, of Cruse Bereavement Care, said: 'Most families would want to fulfill the wishes of their loved ones but organ donation often comes at the point of sudden traumatic death. When a family has had no time to deal with what has happened it can make them particularly anxious that a healthy body should not be interfered with at all. 'This change will be incredibly difficult for some people but it does point to the need for all of us to discuss these matters with our families. It also points to the need for incredibly skilled hospital staff.'
According to Elizabeth Ward, president of the British Kidney Patients Association, the new law does not go far enough.
She said, 'There is lots of tissue just lying in graveyards that could be used. What we need is an opt-out system.'
The new version of the Human Tissue Act also includes a major shake-up of the way organs and body parts are stored for research and other purposes. Anatomy schools, post-mortem services, research establishments that store tissue, and museums or other organizations putting on human body displays must now be licensed by the HTA.
Besides this doctors will have to obtain permission from patients 'up front' to hold on to organs removed during operations.