UK Health Service May Harvest Organs from Infants with Lethal Birth Defects

by Mickey Huff
Published: Last Updated on

At an annual conference for the British Transplantation Society, the National Health Service (NHS) announced that it wants to encourage women who have babies that would be born with life threatening birth defects, to carry them to term so that their organs can be used to help another infant who needs a transplant. Transplant surgeon Niaz Ahmad from St James’s University Hospital said, “we are looking at rolling it out as a viable source of organ transplantation nationally. A number of staff in the NHS are not aware that these organs can be used. They need to be aware. These can be transplanted, they work, and they work long term.” The ideal candidates are anencephalic babies who are born without a brain or little brain tissue and will not survive. Currently, this is legal in the United States, but in the UK, it is not legal to pronounce an infant as brain dead and harvest their organs. If babies in the UK need a transplant, they would have to get donor organs from Europe.

Many surgeons and doctors support this because there are many ill babies with birth defects that don’t survive while waiting on a transplant list. In hospitals in the UK, about 230 of these babies are aborted and only 12 are actually brought to term and born. If more women decide to carry their babies to term with intentions of donating them, they wouldn’t have to wait for donors from Europe and there would be more donors to give the babies on the waiting lists a chance for a better life.

That said, there is a great deal of controversy over using anencephalic babies as organ donors. Some argue that it is unethical and emotionally traumatic for the mothers of the donor babies to carry them to term when they know that they won’t survive. Further, even if the babies do get the transplants they need, they will still have a lifetime of problems. Bioethicist Dr. Trevor Stammers called the NHS suggestion “abhorrent.” He went on stating, “It is a ghoulish suggestion that can only undermine public confidence in transplantation – one of the greatest medical advances of my lifetime. The concept reduces the baby to nothing more than a utilitarian means to an end – a collection of spare parts – rather than respecting life for its own sake.”


Michael Cook, “BioEdge: UK Health Service May Harvest Organs from Babies with Lethal Defects,” BioEdge, March 13, 2016,

Student Researcher: Charlotte Brice (Diablo Valley College)

Faculty Evaluator: Mickey Huff (Diablo Valley College)