New organ donor laws come into effect

A new law requiring hospitals to seek consent before removing organs and tissue from their patients comes into force at midnight tonight.

The Human Tissue Act 2004 was introduced following the revelation that hospitals across England were routinely taking organs from dead patients for research or education purposes without informing their relatives.

Alder Hey children’s hospital in Liverpool was the most notorious, where an inquiry concluded there had been full scale removal of organs from patients between 1988 and 1955. Many of these were never even used for research purposes.

In the wake of this report, the government said the current consent laws were confusing” and needed to be updated. It proposed the new act after a 2001 census revealed that 105,000 body parts were being held in hospitals across the country.

The new law would require all post-mortem services, anatomy schools and research units storing human tissue to be licenced by the new Human Tissue Authority (HTA), and also ensure consent must be given for body parts, organs or tissue to be removed.

In addition, the Human Tissue Act prevents families from overruling the wishes of their dead relatives to donate their organs or tissue – from midnight, patients who have signed the organ donor register, or have an organ donor card, must have their wishes respected.

HTA chief executive Andrew McNeil made clear that this did not mean surgeons would “trample roughshod over the family’s concerns” about the removal of an organ for donation, but said it would give a legal basis for what the patient wanted.

The managing director of UK Transplant, Chris Rudge, said there could be anything up to 1,200 extra transplants a year because of the new law – he claimed that the wishes of one in ten of the UK’s 13.5 million would-be donors are overruled by their families.

The Human Tissue Act will make it illegal to traffic in human material for transplantation, and will also create a new offence of DNA “theft” which would, for example, make it illegal to carry out a paternity test without someone’s consent.

Health minister Rosie Winterton said the new law was a “huge milestone” and insisted the new regulatory system for organ transplants, which will be overseen by the HTA, would promote high professional standards and provide protection for patients.