Labour MSP launches new bid to change law on organ donation

Written by Andrew Whitaker on 4 July 2016 in Feature

A Labour MSP whose father died after a 10-year wait for a heart transplant seeks to change the law on organ donation

 

A defining characteristic of the devolution years has been the Scottish Parliament passing what has been ground-breaking legislation such as the smoking ban.

Despite the initial controversy, the ban which became law in Scotland a year before England, is now taken for granted to such an extent that many people barely believe pub staff and customers were even forced to breathe in tobacco fumes through passive smoking in licensed premises.

However, Labour MSP Mark Griffin says he will consider the current session of Holyrood a “failure” in delivering further radical health changes, if at the end of the five-year term, the parliament has not introduced an opt-out system for organ donations.

The Central Scotland list MSP is to reintroduce the Transplantation Bill, aimed at increasing the number of donor organs available for those in need of a potentially life-saving transplant, after it was narrowly voted down in the closing stages of the parliament.


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Griffin has, he admits, a “huge personal stake” in changing the law to bring in a “soft opt-out” system which would allow parts of a dead adult’s body to be used in transplants in the absence of express permission.    

Less than four years before he was returned as the youngest MSP at the 2011 election at the age of 25, Griffin’s father Francis died, days after a heart operation following a 10-year wait for an organ transplant.

It was a wait that Griffin believes “killed” his dad at the age of 47 – something that’s driving the MSP to push for a change in the law that he believes will cut the number of lives lost due to a lack of available organ donations.     

In fairness, Griffin says he initially expected a bid to change the law to bring in an opt-out system for organ donation to be the latest radical public health changes passed by the parliament, during his first term as an MSP. 

But Griffin talks about how from the moment the bill from the then Glasgow list Labour MSP, Anne McTaggart, was voted down, with the Scottish Government failing to fully support it, he decided he would bring it back to Holyrood if he was re-elected.  

It was legislation that Griffin believes could have saved the life of his dad, who the MSP says had to wait so long for a donor, that by the time one was found, his body was so worn down by a gruelling drug treatment and “10 years of stress and strain” that it was too late for a transplant to be effective.

“I was astounded when it didn’t get through,” Griffin says, his voice slightly cracking with emotion as he sits in his Holyrood office in the final week before the parliament’s summer recess.

There was every reason to believe the Scottish Parliament would review the subject with changes to the law on public health, and with the devolved administration in Wales having already introduced such an opt-out system that has been widely credited with increasing the number of organ donations for those in need.

However, there was a 59 to 56 vote against the bill at Holyrood, with Maureen Watt, then Minister for Public Health saying the “measures set out in the bill could make things worse due to legal ambiguities and delays in decision-making processes” and lost donations.  

It wasn’t just Griffin and those on the Labour side who struggled to get to grips with the Scottish Government’s reluctance to accept the bill, despite Watt telling MSPs that a “workable” opt-out system should be considered.   

Senior SNP MSPs including Kenneth Gibson, Sandra White and Stewart Stevenson spoke in favour of McTaggart’s bill.

Gibson even called on MSPs to “stand up and be counted”, in the sort of passionate call for health reforms many will have associated with Holyrood’s approval of minimum pricing for alcohol – a piece of legislation that remains clogged up by a legal challenge despite being passed in the last parliament and billed as something that would deliver key health benefits.  

But Griffin has committed to bring back the proposal to change the law on organ donors before MSPs and is seeking cross party and government support for a move he believes will “save lives.”    
Speaking of his regret at not taking a leading role in pushing for the law to change last time around, he says: “In the last parliament when Anne’s McTaggart’s bill came up, I thought that as I’ve got such a personal stake in it, that I’d best look at it dispassionately.

“I kept a step back as I didn’t want my personal circumstances to cloud my judgement. 

“I spoke in support of it in a member’s debate, but it’s my biggest regret in my five years as an MSP that I didn’t get involved in trying to get it through the parliament.

“When it was voted down, I decided that if I got back in at the election, I’d make it my top priority.”

But it’s when Griffin talks about how his dad, a North Lanarkshire Labour councillor died in 2007, just days after receiving a heart transplant, his voice breaking again, that it’s clear he won’t take a back seat when it comes to trying to change the law on organ donations now.                      

He says: “My dad had a heart transplant operation in 2007, but it was 10 years after he was diagnosed with heart disease.

“He was kept going by drugs during the 10 years he had to wait and by the time he finally got a donor and was operated on, his body had been badly worn down by the years of stress and strain.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that the 10-year wait is what killed him.       

“He had the operation, but a few days later, his body shut down.”

But it’s not just personal for Griffin, who has his arguments well marshalled and is already in contact with the Scottish Government about trying to secure backing for the bill.

He’s quick to point out the British Medical Association and British Heart Foundation are behind it too.    

Griffin also reassures about what he describes as a “lock in the process”, to ensure that transplants will never come from those who have specifically voiced their objections to being donors.    

“There will be people who object to their organ being used, whether it’s for personal or religious reasons,” the MSP says.

Griffin adds: “But where this is the case and where there are deeply held views from someone that has said they don’t want their organs to be used or they have told a family that’s their wish, there is a lock in the process to make sure that is the way it is.

“The first thing I did after my dad died was to get put on an organ donor register.

“The only reason I hadn’t done it before was because I’d just not got around to it, not because I had any objection.

“The evidence in Wales shows a sharp increase in the number of organs available and there’s no doubt that it would increase the number in Scotland.”

It’s clear Griffin is keen to avoid giving the Scottish Government any excuse not to back the legislation, which he says he would be happy for ministers to take over as part of their own legislative programme.   

In a challenge to SNP ministers, he says: “I don’t understand why the Scottish Government didn’t support the bill last time. Perhaps they were advised, but I don’t know.

“I’ve had early discussions with them and I’m prepared to make changes to the proposals. 

“But I hope that during the process of me starting the ball rolling that the Scottish Government comes to me and says that it wants to take over the legislation.

“I hope they look at the new evidence from Wales and come to me."

Griffin already has a reputation as a consensual politician, having won cross-party support for a bill on promoting the use of British Sign Language.    

But it’s the heart-breaking death of his dad when Griffin was just 22 years old and preparing to join the army, something he had to abandon to look after his family, that is clearly driving the MSP to seek to convince the Scottish Parliament to pass yet more ground-breaking legislation on public health.   

Griffin says: “The parliament is famous for taking public health interventions, with the smoking ban and the legislation on minimum unit pricing for alcohol.  

“I’m hoping the organ donation proposals will become law as soon as possible.

“But the nightmare scenario is that we get to the end of the parliament and do nothing.

“If we don’t get this through at the end of the five-year parliament, I’ll see it as a failure.”

Griffin, who successfully stood as a Labour candidate in a by-election for the ward his dad represented just a few months after his death, finishes by talking about what difference his bill would have made to his dad. 

He says: “Dad would have got the transplant earlier and there’s no doubt in my mind it would have saved him.” •

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