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Organ Donation Can Save Donors’ Lives, Too

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Writer| Peter Singer

Every year in the United States, about 60 children with end-stage liver disease die while waiting to receive a liver transplant. Living organ donors are not always saints, but their decision to save life can redeem their own, as the case of Jeff Ewers shows.

Jeff Ewers is a sex offender. After graduating from Vanderbilt University with a degree in neuroscience, he was arrested for possession of materials showing the sexual abuse of children. He was sentenced to two years in prison. While serving his sentence, he read an article by Frank Bures about living organ donors. He began to think that this could be a way to give positive meaning to a life that had gone so badly wrong.

After his release from prison and adjustment to normal life, Ewers began the process of evaluation for becoming an organ donor. He was rejected because a spinal injury that had prevented him from exercising left him insufficiently fit. Undaunted, he lost weight and improved his fitness, while also weaning himself off all medications. He was evaluated again, and this time was accepted.

Nevertheless, Ewers was conflicted about making the donation, troubled by the possibility that his offense would mean that everything he attempted would turn to ashes. He had heard of my work in applied ethics, and contacted me, wanting to talk over his plan. I told him that saving the life of a child was itself enough reason to go ahead. If he could show others on the US sex offender registry – there are nearly one million of them – a path to redemption, that would multiply the good he could achieve, mainly for those whose lives could be saved, but also for the offenders themselves.

Ewers had already had similar thoughts. His own experience had shown him how profoundly demoralizing and self-alienating it is to live as a sex offender in America, and there were other felons who were probably having similar experiences. At least some of them are, Ewers believes, decent people whose lives had gone badly wrong, but who would nonetheless cherish the opportunity to save a life. Could he help to inspire a sense of hope, agency, and altruistic spirit among these people? Might his story encourage a wave of giving and thus save additional lives? In that way, Ewers hoped that his worst mistakes might enable positive change at a scale beyond anything he could otherwise achieve.

Every year in the United States, about 60 children with end-stage liver disease die while waiting to receive a liver transplant. Ewers chose to donate a lobe of his liver to an anonymous child on this waiting list, made the donation in August 2022, and recovered well.

The recipient was a two-year-old boy with liver cancer whose mother was raising three other children alone. She had sought to donate a liver lobe to her son, but the surgeons had refused to allow her to do so. I contacted her earlier this year, and she told me that her son was “living carefree as most four-year-old boys do because Jeff donated a portion of his liver to him.” She added that she knew about Ewers’ past, but that, “When it comes to the life of my two-year-old, there’s nothing to consider nor a reason to hesitate when you have someone who is willing to do what he has done for us.” In her judgment, “although being a donor does not absolve you from any past wrongdoings, it does make a difference in the lives of those in need and possibly how you will be perceived moving forward with your life.”

That is surely the appropriate ethical response to what Ewers has done. He is now undergoing evaluation to become a kidney donor.

Source: Project Syndicate

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