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Emotional appeal undermines complexity in child transplant case


Media stories that highlight morally sensitive topics often serve to bring important social issues to light, yet they have a tendency to undermine their complexities.

As of Wednesday night, there were 118,239 waiting list candidates for organ transplants in the U.S., according to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network (OPTN), a supplementary government agency that is administered under the United Network for Organ Sharing.

The OPTN is tasked with, among other duties, properly allocating vital organs from donor to patient, prioritizing transplant demands and creating policies that minimize risks to recipients.

A recent CNN column focused on a particular case involving 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan, a Pennsylvania girl with cystic fibrosis in desperate need of a lung transplant.

Sarah’s parents have filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) to block a policy that prevents young patients from receiving adult donations when they are available. On June 5, a federal judge ruled in favor of the 10-day restraining order against the policy. Her parents claim it violates the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984, legislation passed to curb the growth of an illegal organ black market and establish agencies and policies to procure such issues.

Even congressional lawmakers have chimed in on the case, beseeching HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to urgently intervene and allow pediatric patients more leniency in receiving adult organs, an authority which Sebelius claims she does not possess.

Though popular media sources have covered the plight of Sarah and her parents as a rallying cry for reform of government bureaucracy, the OPTN took a more empirical approach. A statement released by the agency reports that almost 1,700 U.S. patients, including 30 children, require “lifesaving lung transplants.”

The report states that various biological differences and predispositions exist between children, adolescents and adults, including size and lung capacity, which have the potential to compromise the health of the recipient. A child receiving adult lungs, incompatible with his or her needs, could lead to complications.

The OPTN rebuked accusations of discrimination against pediatric patients and emphasized that prioritization occurs regionally on the basis of age and size compatibility of the donor and
recipient, followed by severity of illness. Adjustment for individual cases would be contrary to policy and could create a disadvantage for other patients on the waiting list.

Sarah’s situation is harrowing, and her parents’ appeal to organ transplant policy in the U.S. cannot go unattested, as any committed parent would go to great lengths to ensure his or her child’s wellness. But the OPTN’s pragmatic approach to this particular case cannot be discounted, as it is paramount to ensuring the efficiency and safety of organ transplantation.

Human interest stories such as Sarah’s, often overlook serious scientific or legal issues and deviate attention away from extenuating circumstances to appeal to a reader’s emotions.