In this May 30, 2013 file photo provided by the Murnaghan family, Sarah Murnaghan, left, lies in her hospital bed next to adopted sister Ella on the 100th day of her stay in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.
AP Photo/Murnaghan Family, File
WASHINGTON — It’s a life or death matter: Who gets the next scarce donated organ? In an unprecedented challenge to the nation’s transplant system, a federal judge has allowed one dying child — and a day later another — to essentially jump the line in rulings that could have ramifications for thousands of people awaiting new organs.
Over and over, the nation debates the fairness of transplant policies, from Mickey Mantle’s liver in the 1990s to people today who cut their wait times by moving to another city where the list is shorter. But back-to-back rulings by a federal judge this week appear to be a legal first that specialists expect to prompt more lawsuits from people seeking a shorter wait, just like the parents of two patients in a Philadelphia hospital — 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan and 11-year-old Javier Acosta.
“People who have privilege or people who complain more loudly or have political voice shouldn’t be able to claim special treatment,” said Lawrence O. Gostin, a prominent health law professor at Georgetown University, who questioned the legal basis of the rulings. Transplant policies aim to be “fair and just for everyone, not just for that one heart-wrenching case.”
Johns Hopkins University transplant surgeon Dr. Dorry Segev put it more starkly: “Every choice that is made in transplantation in favor of one patient means the likely death on the list for another patient.”
Indeed, when Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius refused to intervene in Sarah’s case, she pointed out that three other children also at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia were in the same condition, and 40 other seriously ill Pennsylvanians over the age of 12 also were awaiting a lung transplant.
The Murnaghans challenged a lung transplant policy that matches children under 12 with pediatric donors, who are rare, or offers them adult lungs only after adolescents and adults on the waiting list have a chance at them. The family said Sarah will die without a new set of lungs soon and argued that children under 12 should have equal access to adult donations. Javier Acosta’s family of New York City filed a similar lawsuit Thursday, saying he may die on the waiting list like his brother did two years ago. Like Sarah, Javier’s lungs have been destroyed by cystic fibrosis.
“If everybody wants us to always have a chair for the kids, we can but who else is that going to hurt?” Roberts said. “These are terrible decisions that have to be made when you don’t have enough organs.”