Was U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius being rigid and cruel when she refused an exception to the rules so a 10-year-old girl could receive a lung transplant from an adult? The girl, Sarah Murnaghan, was placed on the adult transplant list — she also remains a priority patient on the pediatric transplant list — after a judge ordered the change to be made.
As much as transplants save lives that half a decade ago couldn’t be saved, the world of transplants is also a heartbreaking one, and one that often seems heartless to outsiders. There are never enough organs for all the need, so doctors and medical ethicists lay down rules intended to do the most good with what’s available. People who engage in risky health behaviors such as smoking might be disqualified. And in the case of lung transplants, patients 12 and younger are considered ineligible for adult organs because the transplants are less likely to work for them.
It’s practically inconceivable that society wouldn’t surge forward with all its might to try to save a little girl suffering from cystic fibrosis. But it’s also worth noting that should Sarah receive a lifesaving lung, that also means someone else isn’t receiving one — a high school student, perhaps, or the parent of young children. It’s not that we save an extra life; we save one life over another.