Biomedical technology is one of the fastest growing areas of research in modern society. Whether it is reproductive technologies, cloning, genetic engineering or any other topic, people generally approach these with an attitude of both awe and hesitation. Most of us recognize the seemingly limitless potential of new technologies when it comes to curing diseases, elongating lifespans or increasing quality of life. At the same time, we also recognize that these new technologies bring difficult (and seemingly unanswerable) ethical questions. It seems that the reason many people find these questions so hard to answer is that they don’t have a well-established ethical framework from which to answer them. Once we establish an ethical framework, we can explore the answers to the difficult questions. In this paper, I am going to take a virtue ethics perspective on the topic of post-mortem organ donation. I don’t plan on defending virtue ethics as a theory, but I will clarify some of the important issues as they relate to the donation of organs after death.
A brief look at the medical statistics reveals a significant problem; there is ahuge disparity between those who are waiting for organs and the number of organs available. “According to the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS) 83,472 people were waiting for an organ transplant in the United States as of January 2004. From January to October of 2003, 19,101 transplants were performed” (Glannon, 2005). As of today (December 3, 2013), there are 120,845 people waiting for organs in the United States (www.unos.org). The number has increased by approximately 37,000 people in only 9 years, and doesn’t show any signs of decreasing. It is obvious that the human body is a valuable resource, and until medical technology researchers develop fully functional artificial organs, the human body is the primary source for the ‘spare parts’ used in organ transplants. It is also clear that “… we are being prodigally wasteful in our funerary practices and stupidly selfish in our use of vital organs while we live and even more so when we die”. (Fletcher, 1979) So what should we do? Should we donate our organs after we die? When approached from a virtue ethics perspective, we may have a moral obligation to donate our organs after our death. Donating our organs may be how we could continue behaving virtuously even after our life is over.