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Originally published Saturday, December 25, 2004 at 12:00 AM

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A gift for life

On the 50th anniversary of the first human organ transplant, it is important that we take a step back to applaud the miracle of life made possible by this medical breakthrough...

Special to The Times

On the 50th anniversary of the first human organ transplant, it is important that we take a step back to applaud the miracle of life made possible by this medical breakthrough. At the same time, we must highlight the thousands of desperate Americans who will die on the waitlist before any organ can be found.

This tragedy is not due to unavailability of potential organs, but rather the reality that most suitable organs are taken to the grave with their owners instead of donated to those whose lives hang in the balance.

Public opinion polls show that upwards of 85 percent of Americans support organ donation, yet roughly only 30 percent ever sign a donor card.

Given this reality, we need to think of ways to better incentivize Americans to opt in to organ donation. By giving priority to Americans who are willing to donate organs themselves, we could overcome the paradox between the widespread public support for donation and the reality that relatively few people affirmatively sign up (see, for example, LifeSharers.com).

Additionally, the law could permit reimbursement of the donor's family for burial expenses if they agree to part with a deceased loved one's organs. Moreover, state governments could provide tax breaks to encourage donation (as Wisconsin does), or waive driver's license fees for those who opt in.

If any form of monetary inducement runs afoul of federal law, far more attention must be paid to the concept of "paired organ exchanges," an ingenious method of facilitating organ swaps between strangers that does not involve financial consideration at all.

Additionally, rather than ask Americans to opt in to donation, we could presume consent unless otherwise stated, in order to take advantage of the public consensus in favor of donation that often goes unacted upon.

Finally, the media must do a better job of increasing public awareness of the crisis than that which it does today.

In sum, we must act aggressively to improve America's organ-donation law and procurement policy. If we do not do so, tens of thousands will pay for our failures with their lives.

Steve Calandrillo of Seattle is an associate professor at the University of Washington School of Law

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