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What is presumed when we presume consent?

Barbara K Pierscionek

Author Affiliations

Department of Biomedical Sciences, University of Ulster, Cromore Road, Coleraine, BT52 1SA, UK

BMC Medical Ethics 2008, 9:8  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-9-8

Published: 25 April 2008



The organ donor shortfall in the UK has prompted calls to introduce legislation to allow for presumed consent: if there is no explicit objection to donation of an organ, consent should be presumed. The current debate has not taken in account accepted meanings of presumption in law and science and the consequences for rights of ownership that would arise should presumed consent become law. In addition, arguments revolve around the rights of the competent autonomous adult but do not always consider the more serious implications for children or the disabled.


Any action or decision made on a presumption is accepted in law and science as one based on judgement of a provisional situation. It should therefore allow the possibility of reversing the action or decision. Presumed consent to organ donation will not permit such reversal. Placing prime importance on the functionality of body organs and their capacity to sustain life rather than on explicit consent of the individual will lead to further debate about rights of ownership and potentially to questions about financial incentives and to whom benefits should accrue. Factors that influence donor rates are not fully understood and attitudes of the public to presumed consent require further investigation. Presuming consent will also necessitate considering how such a measure would be applied in situations involving children and mentally incompetent adults.


The presumption of consent to organ donation cannot be understood in the same way as is presumption when applied to science or law. Consideration should be given to the consequences of presuming consent and to the questions of ownership and organ monetary value as these questions are likely to arise should presumed consent be permitted. In addition, the implications of presumed consent on children and adults who are unable to object to organ donation, requires serious contemplation if these most vulnerable members of society are to be protected.