Sat, Jan 01, 2011 - Page 7 News List

Kidney for parole offer stirs controversy in the US

AP, JACKSON, MISSISSIPPI

This combination image courtesy of the Mississippi Department of Corrections shows the booking photos for sisters Jaime Scott, left, and Gladys Scott.

PHOTO: AFP

A debate is unfolding over an unusual offer from Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour: He will free two sisters imprisoned for an US$11 armed robbery, but one woman’s release requires her to donate her kidney to the other.

The condition is alarming some experts, who have raised legal and ethical questions. Among them: If it turns out the sisters aren’t a good tissue match, does that mean the healthy one goes back to jail?

Barbour’s decision to suspend the life sentences of Jamie Scott and Gladys Scott was applauded by civil rights organizations and the women’s attorney, who have long said the sentences were too harsh for the crime.

The sisters are black and their case has been a cause celebre in the state’s African-American community.

After 16 years in prison, Jamie Scott, 36, is on daily dialysis, which officials say costs the state about US$200,000 a year.

Barbour agreed to release her because of her medical condition, but 38-year-old Gladys Scott’s release order says one of the conditions she must meet is to donate the kidney within one year.

The idea to donate the kidney was Gladys Scott’s and she volunteered to do it in her petition for early release.

National Association for the Advancement of Colored People president and chief executive Benjamin Todd Jealous thanked Barbour on Thursday after meeting him at the state capital in Jackson, calling his decision “a shining example” of the way a governor should use the power of clemency.

Others aren’t so sure.

University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Bioethics director Arthur Caplan has studied transplants and their legal and ethical ramifications for about 25 years. He said he’s never heard of anything like this.

Even though Gladys Scott proposed the idea in her petition for an early release and volunteered to donate the organ, Caplan said, it is against the law to buy and sell organs or to force people to give one up.

“When you volunteer to give a kidney, you’re usually free and clear to change your mind right up to the last minute,” he said. “When you put a condition on it that you could go back to prison, that’s a pretty powerful incentive.”

So what happens if she decides, minutes from surgery, to back off the donation?

“My understanding is that she’s committed to doing this. This is something that she came up with,” Barbour’s spokesman Dan Turner said. “This is not an idea the governor’s office brokered. It’s not a quid pro quo.”

What happens if medical testing determines that the two are not compatible for a transplant?

Turner said the sisters are a blood-type match, but that tests to determine tissue compatibility still need to be done.

If they don’t match, or if she backs out, will she be heading back to prison?

“All of the ‘what if’ questions are, at this point, purely hypothetical,” Barbour said in a statement from his office late on Thursday. “We’ll deal with those situations if they actually happen.”

Legally, there should be no problems since Gladys Scott volunteered to donate the kidney, said George Cochran, a professor at the University of Mississippi’s School of Law who specializes in constitutional matters.

“You have a constitutional right to body integrity, but when you consent [to donate an organ] you waive that [right],” he said.

Other experts said the sisters’ incarceration and their desire for a transplant operation are two separate matters and should not be tied together.

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