Should keeping people alive take precedence over bringing criminals to justice?
Is it more important to prevent lives from being loss in the future or more humane to save those you can, now?
If you had to choose between taking organs from a brain-dead child to save eight other young lives, would you do it — even if it meant her killer might go free to kill again?
These are the Solomonic questions at the core of the conflict between two sides each working for noble ends. CORE and Gift of Life are two federally certified organ donation organizations operating in Pennsylvania. They seek out organ donors to provide life-sustaining transplants to people facing the real threat of death.
Too often, they find themselves standing against county coroners and medical examiners, who want nothing to interfere with bringing murderers to justice, which they say is sometimes threatened in harvesting organs from crime victims.
PennLive Reporter John Luciew has spent months delving into the complex issues involved with organ donations in Pennsylvania. His in-depth investigation entitled “Human Harvest: Behind the Scene of Organ Donation” reveals some startling information about the realities of the processes that sustain life through death.
It’s a must read for anyone contemplating the laudable decision to become an organ donor, as well as for those who may one day be faced with the decision to authorize it following the death of a loved one.
But the most controversial issue Luciew’s reporting reveals is the tension between coroners and organ harvesting organizations.
The case of 2-year-old Sophia M. Hoffman is a clear example.
Declared brain dead, there was no hope she would recover. But if doctors moved quickly, they could use her healthy organs to help as many as eight other children.
There was a major complication, however. Authorities in rural Clearfield County suspected foul play, and to prove it, they wanted an autopsy of the child’s intact body to provide an official cause of death.
It was the perfect showdown between two determined opponents committed to their unique roles in the equally important missions of saving lives, protecting the public and ensuring justice.
“Keep in mind, this is an ongoing investigation,” District Attorney William Shaw told PennLive. “This baby was victimized. This baby was beaten. And they’re trying to get consent to harvest her organs.”
The court indeed granted emergency consent to allow doctors to take the baby’s organs, which complicated the criminal investigation and almost allowed her 18-year-old murderer to walk free.
Shaw still believes Jennifer Medzie, the live-in girlfriend of Sophia’s father, should have been convicted of first-degree murder, rather than the third-degree conviction she received. He blames the aggressive tactics of CORE with complicating the criminal investigation of a baby who was brutally beaten to death.
Organ harvesting organizations in Pennsylvania have been aggressive in their efforts to win legislative support. Last year, legislators passed a law requiring Pennsylvania coroners and medical examiners to state in writing the reasons for their denials, resulting in significantly fewer of them.
But that only exacerbated tensions between law enforcement and organ harvesting organizations rather than bringing them together to serve both the mandate of justice and saving lives.
“A criminal investigation and organ donation are not mutually exclusive,” said Richard ‘Rick’ D. Hasz, Jr., vice president of clinical services with Gift of Life, which covers all of central and eastern Pennsylvania. “In fact, they happen on 90-odd-percent of our cases.”
But there are still the rare cases like little Sophia’s that require clear guidelines for both sides to follow.
In some parts of the commonwealth, coroners have forged understandings with CORE and Gift of Life, while in other areas hostilities are all too evident.
The real problem is, there is no universally accepted protocol in Pennsylvania to guide coroners and organ procurement organizations. But there needs to be one.
As Luciew states, “reaching this middle ground of collaboration and compromise is a coroner-by-coroner journey. And with no legislative guideposts to follow, getting there likely will be a slow slog.”
Working through the complexities of organ donations and ensuring justice should not be a slow slog. The issue is too important to be tackled with piecemeal legislation or duked out county by county.
Representatives of the organ procurement organizations, county coroners, medical examiners, as well as District Attorneys and law enforcement officials should work together to develop appropriate state-wide protocols from the best practices already established in some areas.
And the legislature needs to take a comprehensive approach, working with experts on both sides to draft legislation that protects the interests of law enforcement while supporting life-saving organ donations.
Above all, we need to put an end to the regrettable power struggles that Luciew says, “too often play out at the hour of death all across Pennsylvania.”