The Organ Donation Deemed Consent Act 2019 has been approved by Parliament and will come into effect 20 May 2020, after a year-long public awareness campaign.

Humanists UK has campaigned for this change for the last ten years, and is delighted that this new law will come into effect as it is expected to dramatically increase the number of organs available for donation, saving an estimated 700 lives in England each year.

What do I need to do because of this change?
1. Talk to your family members about your wishes. Whether you wish to donate or not, it is important that those closest to you are aware of your views.

2. If you wish to donate, register as an organ donor.

3. If you do not wish to donate, you will need to register an opt-out, which you will be able to do on the NHS Blood and Transplant website.

What does ‘deemed consent’ mean?
Until next year, England operates an opt-in system, in which prospective organ donors must sign up to an organ donor register. The problem with this system is that many people who are happy to donate their organs after death either do not sign up for the register, or do not discuss the matter with relatives or friends, and so medical professionals are not aware that they wished to donate.

The new law will mean that a deceased person will be assumed to have consented to organ donation unless they have previously opted out. You will still be able to register as a donor with NHS Blood and Transplant (positively opting-in), but if you do not want to donate you will now need to register as opting-out. If you neither opt-in or opt-out, you will deemed to have consented to your organ being donated. A similar system has been operating in Wales since 2015.

Therefore, under the new system:

  1. If you register as an organ donor, or have previously registered, you have consented to your organs being donated
  2. If you do nothing, you will be deemed to have given consent for your organs to be donated
  3. If you register an opt-out, your organs will not be donated and this decision cannot be overturned by relatives or friends

Does this new law apply to everyone?
This system will apply to those over the age of 18, who are ordinarily resident in England for at least 12 months before their death, and who had the capacity before death to understand the consent process. Therefore, this new system will not apply to children, visitors to England, or those lacking mental capacity. Parents and guardians will still need to positively give consent for children’s organs to be donated.

What role will families play in the decision to donate in the new system?
The new system is designed to better reflect and protect the wishes of the deceased. The family will still play a part in the decision-making process in providing information about the deceased’s wishes and specialist organ donation nurses will work with families. In cases where consent is deemed (i.e. the person did not opt-in or out) donation will go ahead unless a family member provides information that would lead a reasonable person to conclude that the person concerned would not have consented.

Organ donation and humanism
The new system will allow you to make a declaration that your humanist beliefs and values are important in the decision to donate. This will mean that NHS staff will speak with your family or appropriate person (such as a humanist pastoral carer) to make sure that donation can go ahead in line with your humanist beliefs. NHS Blood and Transplant has produced online resources on organ donation and religion or belief, including humanism. You can also download an organ donation card that reflects your belief system, including for humanism.

On the whole, humanists are supportive of organ donation as it can save lives and reduce suffering. Humanists UK has produced an information brochure on humanism and organ donation to help you understand non-religious approaches to this issue.