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What is Organ Harvesting?

Mary McMahon
Updated Mar 03, 2024
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Organ harvesting refers to the practice of removing usable organs from someone who is dead so that they can be transplanted into someone else. There is some dispute over the proper term for this procedure, since it involves delicate ethical and personal issues for many individuals. Some people may prefer the term "organ donation," which indicates that the organs were willingly surrendered to benefit other people. People around the world die every day because their organs go into failure and are unable to support life. Using organs from others who have passed away is a way to prevent these deaths, and it may also provide better quality of life for people like burn victims or individuals who have experienced severe ocular damage.

The first step in an organ donation is to determine that the donor patient is truly dead. The medical community defines death in a number of ways, but for organ transplant, the patient must meet the criteria for brain death or cardiac death. Brain death means that there is no brain activity and no hope of recovery, but the patient's heart is still beating and he or she is still breathing with the assistance of a ventilator. Cardiac death means that the patient's heart has stopped beating, although he or she may not be brain dead; this criteria is usually used in cases in which someone suffers from major head trauma, but still has some slight brain function, and therefore cannot be considered dead until his or her heart has stopped.

A series of tests are conducted to confirm brain death, ensuring that the patient is truly, irrevocably dead. This can be traumatic, as the patient appears to be alive, but he or she is not; sometimes hospital staff must actually use extreme measures to keep the patient "alive" so that the organs will continue to be viable. For cardiac death, the patient must be in cardiac arrest for at least two minutes.

Organ donation is only considered after it is clear that a patient has no hope of survival. Until that time, the focus is on getting the patient well again. One of the most enduring and unfortunate myths about organ harvesting is that it is performed on patients who are still alive, or that doctors circle dying patients like sharks to grab their organs. Organ transplantation is serious business, but so is death, and hospital staff and doctors take death very seriously.

If someone has indicated that he or she wishes to donate organs after death, a transplant team can immediately move in and initiate the harvesting process after consent forms are signed by someone with the power of attorney for the patient. In other instances, someone's wishes may be unclear, and hospital staff may discuss the options with the family. In all cases, a transplant coordinator discusses the possibility of organ donation before a harvest is begun, and the wishes of surviving family members are always respected; organs will never be removed without consent.

Once a medical team has received approval, the organ donor is wheeled into an operating room and cut open so that his or her organs and tissues can be removed. Typically, the donor has been blood typed and screened first, and a transplant coordination agency, such as the United Network for Organ Sharing in the United States, has assigned organs to people in need. Medical staff work quickly to keep organs usable, but they are also respectful, and they ensure that the patient is sewn up when the procedure is finished so that the family can visit the body as part of their grieving process, if desired.

After organ harvesting, the organs and tissues are rushed to their new destinations, and transplanted into patients in need. Some tissues have a longer shelf life, and they may be stored in medical facilities until they are needed. In the event that any donated organ or tissue is not usable, it is respectfully disposed of.

Organ donation can also be carried out with a living donor. The liver, for example, can regenerate, allowing someone to donate liver tissue to someone in need. Someone may also decide to offer up a single kidney. In other cases, people may donate skin for skin grafts or tissue such as bone marrow.

In some parts of the world, people have raised concerns about unethical organ harvesting, such as harvests from prisoners or political dissidents. It is difficult to substantiate claims of illegal harvesting, but it is clear that some people in developing nations do agree to sell their organs as living donors so that they can support themselves. This practice raises troubling issues in the field of medical ethics, as it is somewhat disturbing to think of people selling parts of themselves to survive.

The Health Board is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a The Health Board researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon997459 — On Jan 10, 2017

Cold, soulless people work in the medical world. If an organ is falling apart in your body it could be because you have abused your body. I do not agree with ripping out organs from live people in order to save someone else. Far better to use stem cells and rebuild new organs with no rejection.

If we have organs of others in our body, we take on their information, and there have been many reports where this happens. What this means is because a part of the dead person's body is being kept alive, they are harmed and held back from moving on.

Organ donations are a racket and it is wrong. It promotes laws that the governments can have you killed for your organs. Once again we are responsible for our bodies and if we use drugs and don't look after ourselves, then who is to blame? Organ murder is a billion dollar racket.

By anon990940 — On May 17, 2015

I thank God that my child was 16 and he never signed an organ donor card. I had all the say in the world to say no and the team hated that. They tortured me beyond what you could imagine. They were licking their chops over my son. He was a healthy outdoorsman, never smoke or drank, didn't do drugs and they didn't have to worry about STD's.

By Amanda96 — On Oct 29, 2012

I think one of the key points is, it needs to be 'donation' under free will. When it goes into forced live organ harvesting, it is something totally different and shall never be allowed.

It is quite horrifying to know people get killed on purpose only because their organs can be used for transplant. Even worse, this seems to be a business in today's China, with large numbers of innocent people as victims where the state hospitals and state military are involved.

For those who receive these organs, do they really know this situation? Look up 'forced live organ harvesting.' We just can't accept this kind of thing is happening under the name of 'ethical ways to help others.'

By anon291543 — On Sep 14, 2012

All of you people who totally agree with organ donation, I hope you get to experience what all of the poor, helpless victims have experienced in this horrific donor operation. I hope you get to know what it feels like when your heart will suddenly start to beat 220 seconds per minute. I hope you get the chance to hear the doctors play their hard rock music as they discuss how they are going to begin dissecting your thoracic cavity, and saw your sternum in half. I hope you get to feel that cold liquid that they shoot into your heart to preserve it for some 60 year old or seventy year old.

I hope you try to move but can't because they have paralyzed limbs. I hope you get to feel the skin as they slice it off with a big cheese slicer. All of you who are for the slaughter of your loved ones, I hope you get to feel and experience all that your loved one has gone through, and for what? To make an anti rejection drug company and donor entities the richest people in the world. Shame on the medical entities for not paying for the hospital care that your loved one did not get, for when the donor is identified, he does not get hospital care. You are foolish for allowing this operation to be done on your loved one for what? So an ailing population can live maybe ten years longer?

By anon282214 — On Jul 27, 2012

Are you sure you want to be an organ donor? Since my daughter’s care at the hospital, I began to ask some questions and this is what I found out. I will back up, to tell you what led me to this discovery. My daughter Melissa was hit by a car as she was crossing the street. She suffered from acute brain trauma. A miracle happened moments after the accident. The miracle was an ambulance just happened to pass by within minutes of the accident. My daughter was given care immediately. She arrived at the hospital within 18 minutes. Later I found out that treatment, such as Mannitol and hypothermia therapy for acute brain trauma could have been given by the EMTs. She should have been carried to a level 1 trauma center because of her multiple traumatic injuries, vitals, and the GCS score. But the medical director of the Medical Center of the Rockies did not advise the EMTs to give my daughter

mannitol or hypothermia therapy.

They did not call for the neurosurgeon until 23:33, almost one hour after my daughter’s accident, nor

did they transfer her to a level 1 facility that had the expertise to take care of her multiple traumatic injuries.

Instead, my daughter was taken to Medical Center of the Rockies. She was evaluated and a CT scan was done. But what I have learned is there is a golden hour of opportunity to stop the intracranial brain pressure from rising. There are many aggressive treatments that can be done for acute brain trauma. Surgery is what my daughter needed immediately. She got mannitol and her ICP came down from 80 to 25. Then the doctor made the decision not to do advanced care. He said, “she her a poor prognosis and poor outcome” So my daughter, who was breathing and had a weak cough, all signs of brain stem function, was allowed to lie there in pain with no treatment except supportive care while they waited to harvest her organs.

We were asked within two hours for her organs over the phone. I must say this is our word against the doctor's. He denies this now. But they can’t deny what is on the medical report. It said our daughter was coughing up until 3:00 a.m. and that the ongoing plan was to harvest her organs. The doctors and hospital had an option. They could have operated on my daughter and hoped for a miracle, or call it quits, and let my daughter’s life benefit the federal government in passing out her organs to the world. If there had not been an option, my daughter would have gotten medical care because the doctor and hospital need to make money despite the futility of their efforts.

This was the first heartbreaking thing that I found out: A doctor and hospital can withhold care from you if they think it is futile. This is a contradiction to all the care that cancer patients get. I guess it is where the money is that deems whether you are given care, not whether your case is futile or not.

The whole reason for our suspicion of this hospital and doctors is the careless and aggressive way in which we were approached for our daughter’s organs. First, they called us within two hours, and over the phone. Second, moments after I arrived, and was standing by my daughter’s bed, it seemed as though they were shouting from the nursing center about the designation on my daughter’s license. It was thought at that time, that her Colorado license had a donor designation on it, but maybe not her Oklahoma. They had to make sure both complied with being a donor. So I was standing by my daughter, feeling pretty good, because my daughter looks amazing for just being hit by a car. All her limbs were intact, she were breathing, and I was told that all of her major organs were unharmed.

I was excited, because I thought there was a possibility that my daughter might make it. So I started talking to Melissa. I ask her to move her toe to let me know that she knew I was here. She moved the left baby toe and the one next to it. She did this four times when I asked her to. I know it was purposeful and a direct response to my asking her, because she did it four times when I asked her to. Every time they scraped the bottom of her feet she pulled them away. Yet they said, “This is insignificant. It is spinal.” My first thought was “Why do it, if it is insignificant?” Later, I read that my daughter “contracted her thigh muscle to toe nail bed pressure.” This is significant because the thigh muscle is a skeletal muscle and is only activated by the cortex of the brain. Other signs of life were that my daughter started her menstrual cycle, which is controlled by the hypothalamus part of the brain. My daughter kept her temperature constant; this is regulated by the brain. The beating of the heart is regulated by the brain. My daughter lifted her body off the bed three times. The nurse even said he thought my daughter breathed over the machine. The head nurse dismissed it and said, “It was probably the machine.” The ventilator does not function as the brain; it is just a machine that pushes air through the lungs. Everything else, like temperature, heartbeat and contractions are controlled by the brain. They said my daughter had doll‘s eyes, but it says on the medical report that it was not checked. I cannot remember them checking for the supra-orbital reflex. I do not remember them checking her hands for nail bed pressure or her chest, either.

After our stand that our daughter deserved first rights to her organs, they took us before an ethics committee. We invited a lawyer to sit in on this ethics committee meeting. The ethics committee ended by saying, we could keep our daughters organs, and they were now off the table. I never knew they were on the table, but the medical report says that there was an ongoing plan to donate her organs even before brain death was documented. In fact, brain death was not documented. They blame this on me, but the truth is they had ten hours before I arrived to do any test they wanted. But they did not do it.

Why? I believe they did not do it because my daughter was still coughing up until 3:00 a.m. This is a brain stem function. Brain death can only be declared when all brain stem function is absent. My daughter was alive when the decision to withhold care from her was made. This is equivalent to performing CPR on a drowning victim and in the middle you stop and say, “This is a poor prognosis and poor outcome. Let’s stop in the mist of resuscitation.”

When I was there, they could have done anything they wanted. I was just the mother, watching. Really, the nurses were taking care of my daughter. It says on the medical report that doctors were talking to us, but this is not true. Most of our communication was with the nurses. Later, we spoke with three doctors, and with the doctor, I had to beg blood in exchange for an EEG. Can you believe this? I, a mother, had to barter for blood products in a hospital. When the organs were taken off the table, I thought everything was going to be okay. Later, after reviewing the medical records, I realized that my daughter only got supportive care while they were waiting for her to die. At that time, I did not know she was not getting food. If you do not get food, you will die, especially when you are weak, in trauma and shock. One treatment for brain trauma is nutrition; it needs to be started within 24 hours. My daughter was anemic, the doctor reports, “It is probably due to a loss of blood.” But blood products were not given to relieve the anemia. The medical doctors knew that my daughter was going to have cardiac failure. But they did not try to prevent this from happening by implanting a defrillbilator in her to keep her heart beating. My daughter died because she did not get care because the doctors deemed her futile, and brain dead without documentation. My daughter was never brain dead. She showed the doctors many times that she was alive, by coughing, withdrawing her legs, contracting her thigh, and lifting her body off the bed.

Now this is what I have found out about organ donation, and the donor operation. First, I found out there are critics of brain death diagnosis and organ donation. These critics believe that brain death was concocted for one reason: to obtain profuse organs. Organs have to be oxygenated for a successful transplant. You can only get these organs from live patients. The ad hoc committee had to think really hard. Where can we get oxygenated organs? We have to get them from people who look dead, who can’t communicate with the outside world whether they are alive or not. So this was their plan to take organs from a suffering humanity. The only problem is that these organs are being taken from brain alive patients.

I have read that the donor operation goes like this. The patient is wheeled to the operating room. He is hooked up to a ventilator, he is breathing, his heart is beating, and his blood his flowing. Transplant teams from all over the world are there. Each team is there for their piece of the donor. Some are there for thoracic cavity, others are there for the abdominal region, and the others are there for leftovers. And the poor nurses are there to watch in horror and for the clean-up. Now that everyone is there, the donor’s hands are tucked under his side, to provide a better opening for the thoracic cavity and the abdominal region. The anesthesiologist is there to make sure the “rule of 100s” is being managed. He is not there to provide anesthesia. Anesthesia is not given, so the brain dead donor could be conscious when this surgery takes place. It is said that a neuro (brain)muscular blocking agent is given to keep the brain from transmitting to the tummy not to tighten up to the approaching knife. It is said that the blood pressure will rise from 100 to 220 as the knife is inserted into the thoracic cavity. The blood pressure is controlled by the brain. It is said that the donor will begin to move his limbs and may even do more complex moves like sit up. They say this is all spinal. But I say it is the adrenaline rush that we humans get when we face death. The adrenaline gland is a function of the brain. The donor’s body temperature will go down. This is regulated by the brain. The medical community explains all of these functions away. But these are clear functions of the brain. It is said they have to convince the novice nurses that after this display of life that this patient is really dead.

I am not a medical doctor or nurse, but I know what is living and what is dead. I do not have to be convinced. There is a propaganda machine that has been promoting this lie for over 32 years now. It has been adopted worldwide, even through all this controversy. This machine wants to force us all to be donors. The most prevalent is the presumed consent law. But I am going to challenge the designation to be a donor on the driver license as invalid for four reasons:

It is a contract, and a contract has to benefit both parties, but this contract benefits only one: the United States federal government. The organs of a donor can be sold for a million dollars.

Before signing a contract, you must be able to read the contract. The donor needs to know the surgery to donate his organs will be done on the basis of a brain death diagnosis, that he will not get anesthesia, that he might suffer a heart attack and that his organs might not even be used.

The official at the driver’s license bureau is not qualified to determine who is of a sound mind before signing this important document. The federal government is asking a minor to consent to a surgical operation without the permission of his parents. The presumed consent law will be challenged before the supreme court. It takes our freedom away to choose or give a gift. It is discrimination against the poor and uneducated. Only the rich who can afford to go to a lawyer to get living directive will be able to be excluded from being a donor. Only the educated and informed will be able to make a decision on the basis of informed knowledge.

More facts that I found out: The number one donor will be a 24 year old male, and will likely be uninsured. The government demands the hospital and doctor to notify the donor entity of a potential donor.

I think this should be challenged because it violates HIPPA. No one, not even the federal government, should be able to share your medical history without your permission.

With advancees in treatment for brain trauma, only 20 percent or less will die. So how does the government get organs? How can there be so many donors if 80 percnet will survive and recover with a good outcome? Who gets the money? Who are the recipients? Are they rich and just want to live longer? Most recipients are over the age of 50, the majority over 60.

So the government gets the organs free, sells them for a million dollars, and then we the taxpayers pay the bills from Medicaid and Medicare through our taxes.

The family or the insurance company has to pay for the medical care that the potential donor did not get up until the deal is sealed to be a donor. Shame on all of you who are in this business. You get almost a million dollars for this donor and then you make him pay the hospital bill.

I hope the whole world hears my cry. This donor operation is horrific, and it is potentially the disembowelment of a live human being who does not get anesthesia. This is not a dignified operation. The nurses say they “feel sad” because they are left to rinse the blood out of a hollow shell. It is a numbing feeling. We would not even treat the bodies of our animals like this. There has to be a better way to prolong life than this.

Melissa’s mom, Carolyn

By anon276579 — On Jun 25, 2012

My daughter chose to be a donor. Unfortunately, like so many others, I do not believe she knew exactly what that would entail. Also, she wasn't planning on being a donor at the age of 30.

I live in another state, made my wishes clear that I would like to see her first and jumped on the first plane. I was there in a little over 12 hours after getting the devastating news. It was the mortuary who had to inform me that my daughter had been harvested and did not understand why my request to hold her hand could not be granted.

It was very obvious she had no eyes. There was a lot of bruising and swelling due to the harvesting and my 20 year old son had to see his beloved sister this way for the last time! I'm sure it was her deadbeat father who OK'ed this. I'm not sure yet, since it just happened. But he is the one who called and I said no to him.

I later learned from my husband that the mortuary explained to him why I couldn't hold my daughter's hand. She was "longboned". I'm sorry. I understand it was her wish and that it did great things, but I know she would've changed that if she knew it was at the cost of totally devastating her brother and rest of her family.

Please make sure everyone is aware of what happens. I would have been able to handle this much better if I had made myself more aware of what exactly happens.

By anon92385 — On Jun 28, 2010

My son died of an aortic dissection three months ago and he wanted to be a donor. Because the cause of death had to be determined first, they had to perform an autopsy. That made all his organs unusable. They did the tissue, long bone and corneas. I am grateful for people like him as I will need a cornea transplant in the near future. It is a brave and unselfish thing to do.

By anon89308 — On Jun 09, 2010

I'm curious to know about "face transplants" after last year's chimpanzee attack. How does that occur? Also, if I'm (donor) in a three unit family and die and my daughter and mother are all who are left for for decision making, one says okay donate and the other says absolutely not, what happens?

By anon86954 — On May 27, 2010

In reply to anon28192. We could view our daughter after organ harvest; this was all handled by the funeral home that took charge of her funeral. Cost of the funeral was ours, and the transplant division paid all hospital costs from the moment she was declared brain dead (ICU, theatre costs for harvesting and transfer of the body to the police mortuary).

I was afraid of what she would look like, but there were no obvious signs of harvesting. --Wilmap

By amypollick — On May 26, 2010

@Anon86693: As far as I know, unless other arrangements have been made, the donor's family would contact their mortuary of choice and the mortuary would then handle all the arrangements, including preparing the body for viewing, if the family wanted an open casket visitation and/or service.

By anon86693 — On May 26, 2010

Is the body embalmed and prepared for viewing by the harvesting entity or its assignee? Any information would be appreciated.

By anon86036 — On May 23, 2010

Harvesting organs is the best thing to save many lives. if you calculated it you will find that one dead body can help many people because it has two kidneys, skin, bone marrow, heart, lungs, and the liver which can be used for more than three.

For me I don't mind that if my organs are useful when I am dead to be harvested. what encouraged me to this is I am an o negative blood group which is very rare so i imagined if I was the person who needs an organ wouldn't I agree and ask every body to donate their organs.

To face the facts: either we are going to hell or heaven and we are not going to need these organs. we might get some benefit and go to heaven because we helped other people to stay alive.

By anon82295 — On May 05, 2010

I'm not trying to sound mean or heartless. i believe that something wonderful happened at one time of our lives. We were all given the chance of life. We also know that it has an end at one point. It is nothing to be ashamed of; death it is as wonderful as life. As long as we have God in our lives and we have done good.

By anon76315 — On Apr 09, 2010

answering the homeless man question, i believe so, considering that harvesting organs is underhanded.

By wilmap — On Jan 19, 2010

Our daughter was declared brain dead on Christmas day 2009. We gave permission for everything that could be used for donation.

We had a call from the transplant division that during harvesting a malignant growth was discovered on one of her ovaries. It was decided not to use her vascular organs (a.k.a. heart, kidneys and liver) due to the risk it would cause to the already immunosuppressed recipients. They did use both corneas, skin and bone. I still have awful visions of a deflated doll after the removal of her bones. But I still think the benefit for those who needed it outweighs it.

By anon60313 — On Jan 13, 2010

It is evident that there are many people in the world, who would like a new organ such as a heart or a kidney.

If we promote people to donate their organs, it will decrease the number of deaths within a county. Although a person may agree to have their organs "harvested", the family may not agree with the person's wishes. At this point, the family has the right to refuse to have the patient's organ "harvested".

There is problem in this matter: what if the patient shares different values and beliefs from his/her family? Will their organs be harvested? Is it right to proceed with harvesting these organs, even if the family refuses to get do so?

By anon54763 — On Dec 02, 2009

i totally agree with organ harvesting.

By anon53184 — On Nov 19, 2009

who pays for the harvesting of the organ, the patient receiving the organ or the patient that is deceased?

By anon52639 — On Nov 16, 2009

Would body parts from a young, healthy homeless man who was murdered be harvested if no family could be contacted?

By anon28192 — On Mar 12, 2009

What kind of stitches should we expect to see after your daughter donates skin, tissues, long bones, valves, etc? Should we expect that she would be lying in her own blood? Thank you, Nashville

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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