Bill would require Texans to opt out of organ donation rather than opt in

By Nicole Cobler | March 1, 2017

AUSTIN — A Dallas lawmaker’s bill to automatically make organ donors out of driver license holders is meeting resistance from a surprising opponent — the nonprofit that runs Texas’ organ donor registry.

Donate Life Texas has been vocal in opposing so-called “opt out” or “presumed consent” programs across the country, fearing it could slow down momentum at a time when 47 percent of the state’s adults have signed up to be donors.

According to a 2012 national survey by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 51 percent of Americans would support presumed consent laws, but 23 percent said they would opt out of the donor registry if presumed consent were implemented.

“Such strong negative public sentiment demonstrates the real risk that backlash against an opt-out system would result in fewer donations, not more,” said Suzy Miller, executive director of Donate Life Texas.

State Rep. Jason Villalba, R-Dallas, counters that people are much more comfortable donating organs than they were 50 years ago. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 95 percent of American adults support organ donation and 48 percent are registered donors.

“The stigma to it, the religious objections to it have generally fallen away, and today most people can get comfortable with the idea of this,” he said.

Villalba’s bill would automatically make Texans organ donors unless they opt out. The bill he has filed would apply only to first-time driver license applicants and renewals who are 18 and over. The bill, he said, would give driver license holders two separate notices to alert them that they are consenting to becoming organ donors unless they opt out.

“There’s no trick,” he said. “It’s not a mandate. It’s not requiring anybody to do it.”

The bill, if passed, would be the first of its kind in the United States. Other states, including Colorado and New York, have made similar attempts, but presumed consent laws have yet to make it far in this country.

The idea is not unheard of around the world. Austria and France have passed laws to make organ donation the default option, which experts say raises the pool of potential donors.

In 2016, 937 people donated 2,865 organs for transplantation in Texas. There are currently 10,749 Texans on the transplant wait list.

In Texas and Bexar County, 47 percent of adults are registered to donate their organs, but Miller said few are actually eligible to donate when the time comes.

“Only about 1 percent of deaths occur in such a way that organ donation is even a possibility,” Miller said. “A person must pass away in a hospital on a ventilator in order for their organs to remain viable for transplantation.”

Villalba is hoping his bill could help people like Grace Bennett, who has been waiting nearly two years for a new pair of lungs.

The 54-year-old Arlington native was diagnosed with a chronic lung disease in 2013, six years after she noticed she was having difficulty breathing and walking. Her disease, Chronic Hypersensitivity Pneumonitis, appeared when her lungs became inflamed from an allergic reaction to mold inhalation. It is reversible in the early stages, but that was not possible for Bennett.

She was placed on the national transplant list in June 2015, making her one of the hundreds of Texans waiting for a lung transplant.

“I’ve become so aware of how many people are fighting these diseases that cause them to be placed on the transplant list and how many people there are how few organs are available,” Bennett said.

The United Network for Organ Sharing manages a nationwide list of individuals who need organ transplants, and the average wait time for a lung transplant is four months. In Texas, 136 people are waiting for a lung transplant, according to the network’s data. According to government data, about 22 people die each day waiting for a transplant. Villalba said he thinks the lack of organs for people like Bennett may be because of the country’s current organ donation system.

Now, Texans can become organ donors directly through Donate Life Texas or they can check “yes” during their vehicle registration or driver license process. More than 11,000 people currently are on the transplant waiting list, according to Donate Life Texas.

In addition to Donate Life Texas, the influential conservative lobbying organization Empower Texans and anti-abortion group Texas Right to Life oppose Villalba’s bill.

John Seago, Texas Right to Life’s legislative director, said he worries an opt-out system would be deceptive and “open up the floodgates of patient abuse.”

Jonathan Stickland, R-Bedford, also criticized the legislation in his “Bad Bill of the Week” video series, and asked viewers to call Villalba’s office to oppose the legislation.

“It forces people to become organ donors — automatically enrolling you in the system when you get your driver’s license,” Stickland said in the video.

Stickland said he is concerned the bill would violate Texans’ privacy by sending their names and addresses to a nonprofit, where “we don’t know where it’s going to end up.”

Villalba said it is tough to read the overall reaction of lawmakers in the House this early in the session, but he has received overwhelming support from constituents and medical groups such as the Texas Medical Association and the Texas Hospital Association.

“The only negative feedback we’ve gotten was related to Stickland’s video, and most of those people have actually flipped when we’ve spoken to them,” Villalba said.

Bennett and her family have thrown their support behind Villalba’s bill. Her son, Kyle Field, uses the Facebook page “Grace’s Story” to update friends about his mother’s health. He also has used the page to voice his support for the measure.

“To me, there are no politics involved,” Field said. “Democrat or Republican aside … this bill will save lives. Not just my mom’s life potentially, but literally the thousands of people in the state of Texas that will die if they don’t get a transplant.”

Express-News staff writer Brittney Martin contributed to this report.


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