Rival unionist MLAs square up over organ donation legislation

A row has erupted on a new Bill about organ donation in Northern Ireland.
A row has erupted on a new Bill about organ donation in Northern Ireland.

Amid huge focus on high-level constitutional politics over recent months, a disagreement about an issue which at first appears uncontroversial has been brewing.

Nearly a year ago, Ulster Unionist MLA Jo-Anne Dobson announced that she intended to bring forward a Private Member’s Bill at Stormont which would change the law to presume consent for organ donation unless an individual has specifically opted out.

At present, organ donors have to proactively choose to allow their organs to be used by others after their death.

The Upper Bann MLA, whose son’s life was transformed by a new kidney, has spoken passionately about the need to boost the number of organ donors.

As set out in her article in today’s News Letter, Mrs Dobson believes that her proposed change to the law would address an anomaly that sees a shortage of organ donors despite overwhelming public support for the principle of organ donation. Among those who have backed that position is the prominent GAA pundit Joe Brolly.

But support for Mrs Dobson’s proposal, whilst widespread, is far from universal.

The DUP’s Alastair Ross, who last June told the News Letter that he had an “ideological difficulty” with what Mrs Dobson was putting forward, has been working on his own Private Member’s Bill aimed at increasing the number of organ donors.

Writing in today’s News Letter, Mr Ross questions whether Mrs Dobson’s approach would increase donor numbers.

The DUP MLA’s proposal would force individuals to make a choice – either to agree to organ donation after death or not – when they apply for a driving licence.

His argument, which stems in part from a libertarian belief that the state should not presume to own its citizens’ bodies, is that such a system would increase the number of donors without any grey area as to whether an individual actually wanted to donate their organs.

It is not yet clear whether an agreement can be reached between the two unionist MLAs – who both share a belief in increasing the numbers of organ donors – before the two bills come to the floor of the Assembly for debate.

But such a debate is evidence of the ‘normal politics’ on which many have urged Stormont to focus, away from the sectarian or constitutional battles.