Professor of medical ethics and philosophy Robert M. Veatch called for changing the way that organ transplants are distributed this Friday in the Bioethics Research Library.

The discussion, part of the Big Ideas in Bioethics speaker series, focused on the case of Sarah Murnaghan, an 11-year-old girl who suffered from severe cystic fibrosis and was on the children’s waiting list for a lung transplant for 18 months.

The case gained national attention as Murnaghan’s mother took to social media to plead Sarah’s case. The Murnaghan family won their case, arguing on the basis of age discrimination, and the judge granted Sarah a spot on the top of the waiting list for adult transplants, rather than on the waiting list for children’s transplants, significantly decreasing the time she would wait for a new set of lungs. After a lung transplant, Sarah returned home in August.

Veatch explained why many transplant experts are leery of cases like Sarah’s.

“Politicians and judges cannot grasp the multifactorial principles of allocation,” Veatch said. “Sarah’s mother knew how to manipulate the media in a favorable view of her daughter.”

Veatch debated how far medical professionals should go in prioritizing transplants for children over adults.

“We in the transplant world would not be uncomfortable giving an advantage to kids. We just don’t know how much advantage to allocate,” he said. “If we’re to treat people equally, we need to figure out what equally poor off is.”

Another problem, Veatch said, was in the decision to put Sarah on the adult waiting list. While her chance of receiving a transplant was greater, adult lungs simply do not function optimally in children.

“[The judge] didn’t get to meet the adult, who probably had a greater chance of survival, who died because Sarah got his lungs,” said Veatch. “The fault is not in the mother. The fault is in the judge for not realizing the extent to which his decision affected the lives of others.”

The presentation was followed by a brief question and answer session.

Undergraduate Bioethics Society Treasurer Courtney Choy (COL ’14) encouraged students to attend future speaker series events, which the society co-sponsors once a month.

“What people don’t know is that bioethics doesn’t just apply to the sciences. As seen in today’s discussion, it’s relevant in government, technology, policy, law, etc.,” Choy said. “Understanding these issues in today’s society can give students a distinct advantage.”

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