ATLANTA — Prison inmates in South Carolina could get up to six months shaved off their sentences if they donated a kidney or their bone marrow, under a proposed bill before the state Senate.
"We have a lot of people dying as they wait for organs, so I thought about the prison population," said state Sen. Ralph Anderson, the bill's main sponsor. "I believe we have to do something to motivate them. If they get some good time off, if they get out early, that's motivation."
The proposal was approved Thursday by the Senate Corrections and Penology Subcommittee.
But it is almost certain to prompt fierce opposition from legal experts and prisoner rights advocates about whether inmates are able to make such a decision freely.
"For a prisoner to actually have a benefit for giving up an organ violates every ethical value I'm aware of," said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of law at Georgetown University Law Center and chairman of the Institute of Medicine's committee on human subject research in prisoners. "It's grossly unethical, if not unlawful," he said. The institute is part of the National Academy of Sciences.
Legislators said they would not debate the measure until they established whether exchanging prison time for body parts violates federal law. Under current law, it is illegal to exchange an organ for "valuable consideration." Lawmakers are attempting to determine whether a reduced sentence constitutes a consideration.
"Getting out of prison early is more valuable than money," Gostin said. "That's your freedom."
Even without the incentive of reduced prison time, Gostin said, the proposal would be unethical because prisoners have little autonomy and live in highly coercive environments. Federal law, for example, prohibits inmates from entering clinical trials of drugs under development even if they have cancer or AIDS, because their confinement could cause them to make a decision they might not otherwise make.
Anderson said his organ donation program would impose comprehensive oversight.
"We would check that this was voluntary and they had all the information," he said. "It would not be forced upon them."
According to the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, more than 95,300 Americans are awaiting an organ transplant, and about 6,700 die every year before an appropriate organ is found.
Under the program, the state's Department of Corrections would decide which inmates could donate. Money for medical procedures and any prison guard overtime would be paid by the organ recipient and charitable organizations.
"America has a major healthcare crisis," Anderson said. "I believe this would save money, improve the quality of healthcare and save a whole bunch of lives."