January 1st, 2011

A Kidney the Price of Freedom?

Gladys and Jamie Scott have won their freedom. As Bob Herbert relates in the New York Times, the scope of their incarceration was a miscarriage of justice.

As insane as it may seem, Gladys and her sister, Jamie, are each serving consecutive life sentences in a state prison in Mississippi for their alleged role in a robbery in 1993 in which no one was hurt and $11 supposedly was taken.

Herbert also notes

The only reason the Scott sisters have gotten any relief at all is because of an extraordinary network of supporters who campaigned relentlessly over several years on their behalf. Ben Jealous, the president of the N.A.A.C.P., emerged as one of the leaders of the network. The concerted effort finally paid off.

Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour suspended their sentences, but a condition of their release is that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie, as if Gladys wasn't willing to do this all along.

The prison terms were suspended — not commuted — on the condition that Gladys donate a kidney to Jamie, who is seriously ill with diabetes and high blood pressure and receives dialysis at least three times a week. Gladys had long expressed a desire to donate a kidney to her sister, but to make that a condition of her release was unnecessary, mean-spirited, inhumane and potentially coercive. It was a low thing to do.

But by making organ donation a condition of freedom Gov. Barbour also violates the medical ethics basis of 50-year-old organ donation laws. At ABC News Susan James writes

Ethicists say suspending a prison sentence on the condition that one sister give the other a kidney is a "quid pro quo" and threatens the ethical underpinnings of living donation laws.

Keep in mind — no kidney, no release.

"As soon as the governor began throwing around commutation — getting out of her prison sentence — he began to undercut the ethical framework," said Dr. Art Caplan, director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania. "He has now put the sisters' donation in jeopardy because the parole is absolutely a payment, which is against the law. It would be considered pressure or coercion."

And this is at the heart of why Gov. Barbour's conditional suspension is particularly nefarious. Gladys Scott, as a prisoner, is a ward of the state of Mississippi. In essence, the state of Mississippi is saying, "We have incarcerated you; however, we will release you in exchange for a part of your body."

Felicia Cohn, bioethical director for Kaiser Permanente in Orange County, California, is cited in the James article:

"I wouldn't describe it as a gift. Essentially one sister is being paid for her kidney. It's not monetary payment, but it's her freedom, which is worth even more. Our freedom is considered invaluable."

Prisoners — wards of the state — should not have to give up body parts to gain their freedom.

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