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:
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.