Topic: Professions & Institutions

The Prisoner’s Liver

Real life provides ethical conundrums that even the most diabolical ethics professor could never dream up. Thus we have this very week the saga of the condemned man, Gregory Johnson, scheduled to be executed by lethal injection, who has asked to give his liver for transplant into a desperately ill young woman.his sister, in fact. The problem is that the lethal injection ordered by the Indiana courts will probably make Johnson’s liver unusable, so to be a life-saving measure for his sister the liver must be removed before his execution. And if it is removed, there will be no execution, because the liver donor, will be dead. Johnson will have "cheated the hangman" as they used to say of condemned men who committed suicide in their cells. But he would have done so to save a life.

Should Indiana grant his request?

The situation raises a herd of ethical questions:

  • Johnson has been duly condemned to death for murder. Won’t permitting the transplant essentially rescind his punishment? Is that fair to his victim, and his victim’s family? Why should the state allow him to avoid his punishment to help out a family member? Lots of convicted prisoners could do good deeds for family members if they weren’t in prison.that’s one reason it’s called "punishment."
  • Indiana doesn’t permit suicide or assisted suicide. No doctor would be permitted to take the liver of an otherwise healthy donor, killing him, under any other circumstances, even with the donor’s consent. Is this different just because Johnson’s scheduled to die anyway?
  • Then there’s the possibility of a so-called "half-liver transplant," in which the donor is left with enough liver to possibly survive, and the recipient gets just enough liver to have a chance at recovery. But the operation might still kill Johnson, and maybe that’s what he wants. Should he be allowed to take the risk (or get a chance to achieve his desire result.death without execution)? Under the best case scenario, he would have to be permitted time to recuperate from the operation, necessitating a postponement of his date with the syringe (yes, you have to be healthy before they execute you.). Would an extra few weeks of life be a benefit that a murderer doesn’t deserve?

Some of the difficulty of these problems was lessoned when it was revealed that the sister would almost certainly get a liver for transplant without the generosity of her brother, because the state’s waiting list for the organ is short. Thus the Indiana court was able to turn down Johnson’s request.

It is not a situation we are likely to see again any time soon, but it presents a useful test of our ethical problem solving skills, and those skills are worth honing for less bizarre and more important ethical challenges we are sure to face in the future. For the record, The Ethics Scoreboard agrees with the court: the opportunity to use one’s body in the support of family and other loved ones is one of the freedoms forfeited when one takes the life of another. And if assisted suicide is illegal for law-abiding citizens, it shouldn’t be legal for murderers. It’s not even a particularly tough call. The execution should go forward (and it did: Otis was executed the day this was written.). His desire to do one last virtuous act came too late, and had too many self-serving elements to justify special treatment.

He couldn’t give his sister his liver, but he managed to give ethicists something to think about. It’s not the greatest accomplishment in the world, but it’s better than nothing.


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