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Organ donation after medical assistance in dying or cessation of life-sustaining treatment requested by conscious patients: the Canadian context
  1. Julie Allard1,2,
  2. Marie-Chantal Fortin1,2,3
  1. 1 Centre de recherche du Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CRCHUM), Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  2. 2 Bioethics Program, Department of Social and Preventive Medicine, École de santé publique de l'Université de Montréal, Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  3. 3 Nephrology and Transplantation Division, Centre hospitalier de l'Université de Montréal (CHUM), Montreal, Quebec, Canada
  1. Correspondence to Dr Marie-Chantal Fortin, Nephrology and Transplant Division, Hôpital Notre-Dame, 1560 Sherbrooke Street East, Montreal, QC H2L 4M1, Canada; marie-chantal.fortin{at}


In June 2016, following the decision of the Supreme Court of Canada to decriminalise assistance in dying, the Canadian government enacted Bill C-14, legalising medical assistance in dying (MAID). In 2014, the province of Quebec had passed end-of-life care legislation making MAID available as of December 2015. The availability of MAID has many implications, including the possibility of combining this practice with organ donation through the controlled donation after cardiac death (cDCD) protocol. cDCD most often occurs in cases where the patient has a severe neurological injury but does not meet all the criteria for brain death. The donation is subsequent to the decision to withdraw life-sustaining treatment (LST). Cases where patients are conscious prior to the withdrawal of LST are unusual, and have raised doubts as to the acceptability of removing organs from individuals who are not neurologically impaired and who have voluntarily chosen to die. These cases can be compared with likely scenarios in which patients will request both MAID and organ donation. In both instances, patients will be conscious and competent. Organ donation in such contexts raises ethical issues regarding respect for autonomy, societal pressure, conscientious objections and the dead-donor rule. In this article, we look at relevant policies in other countries and examine the ethical issues associated with cDCD in conscious patients who choose to die.

  • Donation/Procurement of Organs/Tissues
  • Euthanasia
  • Suicide/Assisted Suicide
  • Vital organ donation

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In Canada, 4514 patients were waiting for an organ at the end of December 2014. Over the course of 2014, a total of 2356 transplant procedures were performed.1 Various strategies have been adopted to increase the number of organs available for transplantation in an effort to reduce the gap between demand and supply. One such strategy has been to reintroduce the practice of donation after cardiac death (DCD).2 Indeed, in the 1950s, the very first transplants performed took place after organs were retrieved from donors who were declared dead based on cardiac criteria.3 ,4 With the emergence of ventilators and the definition of brain death in 1968,5 donation after brain death (DBD) became routine, while DCD became less common.3 DBD has several advantages, one of the most notable being that it reduces the length of warm ischaemia (since the donor still has a heartbeat at the time of donation) thus yielding higher quality organs.

DCD protocols are divided into two broad categories: controlled and uncontrolled.4 At present, Canada's organ procurement organisations (OPOs) only practise controlled DCD (cDCD), as recommended by a national forum.6 Most cDCD cases involve patients who have suffered a severe neurological injury, but do not meet all the criteria for brain death. In other words, the patient is unconscious and has a poor long-term prognosis. Facing this prognosis, the decision may be made to terminate life-sustaining treatment (LST). In this eventuality, cardiac function will stop shortly after the withdrawal of LST and, after a brief no-touch period, death will be declared and organ procurement can begin. Only rarely is the cDCD protocol followed in cases where the patient is conscious, although such cases do occur (eg, patients with a cervical spine injury who are ventilator dependent).

Although cessation of LST requested by conscious patients and medical assistance in dying (MAID) are different, cDCD in both contexts is very similar. In both situations, the patient is conscious and competent, is able to make end-of-life decisions and has chosen to die. Since the province of Quebec has recently passed a landmark end-of-life care law, An Act respecting end-of-life care, permitting MAID,7 and the Supreme Court of Canada has removed the ban on physician-assisted death,8 the frequency of cases in which conscious patients express a wish to die is likely to increase in the future in Canada. Although most patients who request MAID will be patients with cancer and therefore ineligible for donation, some patients would be suitable, for example, those suffering from neurodegenerative diseases such as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or multiple sclerosis. Policies on donation in these contexts should therefore be explicit. In this article, we will briefly present the Canadian context and examine the ethical issues associated with cDCD involving conscious patients, following either cessation of LST or MAID, to help inform policymakers.

Cessation of LST and MAID: the Canadian context

In Canada, cessation of treatment is a right and is now widely accepted and practised.9 In this article, MAID refers to both physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia, as it does in the federal legislation that allows and regulates both practices. MAID is also the terminology used in Quebec (provincial) laws, although it refers to voluntary euthanasia and excludes assisted suicide. The Supreme Court of Canada used physician-assisted death, which is the most common terminology.8

MAID was first introduced in the province of Quebec in An Act respecting end-of-life care,7 which was adopted in June 2014 and enacted in December 2015. Seen as an integrative vision of palliative and end-of-life care, this law was adopted based on the recommendations of an expert committee and following extensive public consultations.10 MAID was presented as standard healthcare. The Quebec law requires that the patient, a competent adult, be experiencing constant and unbearable suffering and be at the end of life.7

On 6 February 2015, before the Quebec law was enacted, the Supreme Court of Canada handed down its decision in the Carter case filed in 2011. The court concluded that the prohibition of MAID infringes on the right to life, liberty and security of the person, as stated in Section 7 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms.8 Prohibition of MAID undermines patients' right to security, since those wanting to end their suffering have no choice but to commit suicide. The court gave the government 1 year to introduce a new law framing the practice of MAID, then the deadline was further extended to 6 June 2016.11 The tight time frame and the political context left no time for public consultations. Bill C-14, adopted on 17 June 2016,12 is more restrictive than the Supreme Court decision as it adds the criterion of foreseeable death.

MAID still raises many ethical issues. Opponents of MAID are concerned about societal pressures on vulnerable patients and about the slippery slope that could lead to the death of people who have not given valid consent.8 Meanwhile, MAID advocates argue that the procedure respects the autonomy and right to security of patients who want to end their suffering.8

There are many publications debating ethical issues associated with MAID. The goal of this article is not to contribute to this debate, but rather to focus on the acceptability of organ donation in the context of LST cessation and MAID, since MAID is beginning to be practised in Canada.

cDCD in the context of a conscious decision to end life

Combining a patient's request to end his or her life with organ donation raises many ethical issues. In the following sections, we will review international policies on cDCD for conscious patients requesting the cessation of LST and for patients asking for MAID, and then examine ethical issues associated with both contexts.

International policies

cDCD for conscious patients requesting cessation of LST

UK: The UK's DCD protocol states that decisions to withdraw LST should follow the rules of futility, independently of organ donation decisions. However, the protocol further states that ‘a decision that continued active management of a patient is futile follows confirmation by both examination and investigation that he/she has sustained a catastrophic and irreversible brain injury’.13 Therefore, a conscious patient would not fulfil the requirements of this protocol.

USA: The practice guidelines issued by the American Society of Transplant Surgeons (ASTS) state that eligible organ donors should have a poor prognosis resulting from a ‘catastrophic brain injury or other illness such as end-stage musculoskeletal disease, pulmonary disease or high spinal cord injury’.14 In May 2015, the ASTS issued a statement on conscious DCD, stating that it is ethically appropriate based on the principle of autonomy.15 The policies of the Organ Procurement Transplant Network, which regulates all OPOs in the USA, clearly state that when the case involves a conscious patient, the OPO must confirm that the healthcare team has assessed the patient's competency and capacity to make decisions about the withdrawal of LST and other medical procedures.16 cDCD is therefore permitted when patients are conscious, and some cases have been reported.17 ,18

Australia: The national protocol for cDCD issued by the Organ and Tissue Authority of Australia states that ‘in limited circumstances, for example in patients with end-stage respiratory or cardiac disease or a high cervical spinal injury, the patients themselves will be competent to consent’ to organ donation.19

Canada: In the recommendations on cDCD issued by an expert panel, the potential organ donor is a patient who is dependent on LST such as a ventilator or haemodynamic support. The ‘patient conditions may include, but are not limited to, severe brain injury of diverse etiology, end-stage neuromuscular failure, high cervical spinal cord injury and end-stage organ failure’.6 Conscious patients are included in these guidelines.


Countries where MAID is available have different policies regarding organ donation. These policies are summarised in table 1.

Table 1

Policies on organ donation in countries where physician-assisted death is permitted

Switzerland: Assisted suicide is permitted on historical grounds and has been practised by right-to-die associations for more than 30 years.22 Organ donation after physician-assisted suicide is not currently possible. Shaw has proposed implementing organ donation after physician-assisted suicide as a way to address the organ crisis.23 However, this proposal has proven controversial and may not result in viable organs, since assisted suicide is not practised in hospitals.24

Luxembourg: The law states that organs may be procured once death is declared after an irreversible cardiac arrest, following the decision to cease treatment because of extensive damage to the brain.25 It would therefore be illegal to procure organs from a conscious patient who has chosen to die either through cessation of treatment or euthanasia.

Belgium: Organ donation following euthanasia is possible if the patient spontaneously requests it.26 Between 2005 and 2015, 21 patients donated their organs following euthanasia. A total of 41 kidneys, 19 livers, 14 pairs of lungs, 10 pancreatic islets and tissues were procured during this period.20

Netherlands: It is permitted in the Netherlands to donate organs following euthanasia.27 ,28 So far, 15 patients have requested this procedure.21

USA: Although assisted suicide is allowed in certain states, such as Oregon and Washington, there are no reports of organ donation following MAID.

Canada: In Quebec, since the introduction of MAID was anticipated, ethics committees had time to start the reflection on organ donation before MAID became available. An independent committee was mandated to issue recommendations on this issue by the provincial organisation responsible for examining ethics in science and technology, the Commission de l’éthique en science et en technologie (CEST).29 The ethics committee of Transplant Québec, the provincial OPO, also issued recommendations.30 Both committees are in favour of donation after MAID. Some of their recommendations will be detailed further along. Although cases of MAID have occurred, no cases of organ donation following MAID have yet been reported.

Ethical issues

In this section, we will review the ethical issues related to DCD in the context of MAID and conscious patients.


Respect for autonomy is a key issue in decisions to end LST, in organ donation and in requests for MAID. The right to refuse or cease treatment is a fundamental right based on respect for the patient's autonomy.9 Several countries, including Canada and the USA, believe that a person who is able to give free and informed consent (or refuse such consent) is entitled to decide what will happen to his or her body.

MAID is also based on this principle. The reason MAID is currently legally practised in Canada is to respect the autonomy of patients who wish to end their lives.7 ,8 Only adults who are considered competent to make this decision can have their request granted. However, MAID is more controversial than cessation of treatment, as it goes against another important principle, the sanctity of life9 and potentially places pressure on the most vulnerable patients, thus making it more difficult to evaluate the freedom with which consent is given.

Respect for autonomy is also of great importance in organ donation. As Canada has an opt-in consent system, consent is always sought from the patient or family before the donation can occur. Consent should not be problematic when patients are conscious and express their desire to donate their organs. If patients are competent, are duly informed of the interventions involved and can provide first-person consent, the ethical issues related to consenting to medical interventions aimed at preserving the organs are no longer pertinent. Proceeding with the donation therefore respects their autonomy.

MAID opponents argue that patients may see themselves as a burden and feel societal pressure to die, which would affect their ability to decide freely for themselves. This was the basis of the arguments against MAID in Carter v. Canada—the fact that many factors could render a patient decisionally vulnerable. In its judgement, the Supreme Court concluded that physicians are able to evaluate competence on an individual basis.8 However, organ donation was not included as a factor that could put pressure on a patient to choose death. Terminally ill patients may feel they would better serve society by dying and saving other people's lives. Physicians would have to pay close attention when evaluating external pressures that could affect the decisional capacity of patients who want to end their life and donate organs. It will be difficult to disentangle patients' motivations for requesting MAID, but the complete separation of the two decisional processes should help to ensure that the MAID request is motivated by unbearable suffering, as required by law, and not by the feeling that one's value is limited to one's organs.

Directed donation could be problematic in the context of MAID. Someone who has a relative waiting for an organ may choose MAID and organ donation to end his relative's suffering rather than to end his own suffering. Distinguishing between the two intentions may prove difficult, but it is necessary to prevent organ donation from being the sole motivation for choosing MAID. It would be difficult to permit organ donation following MAID to strangers while prohibiting donation to a relative in need, particularly considering that living organ donation is mostly directed to a known person. Deceased directed donation is not prohibited in Canada and some provincial OPOs do accept directed donation under certain circumstances.31 Directed donation could be permitted if the motivation behind MAID is to end the donor's suffering.

Death and the dead-donor rule

The dead-donor rule (DDR) is an internationally applied rule in organ donation stipulating that organ procurement itself must not cause the death of the donor.32 However, the definition of death in the context of DCD can be seen as problematic.6 In jurisdictions where determination of death by cardiac criteria is accepted and DCD is practised, such as Canada, there should not be additional controversy around donation following a conscious patient's decision to cease treatment.

One may question whether applying the DDR in the specific context of MAID or cessation of treatment is the optimal thing to do as suggested by Bollen et al.21 ,28 If organ donation were permitted following MAID, some would say it is counterproductive to provoke the death of the person with medication and then procure his or her organs. Others would argue that there is an important ethical difference between causing death and then procuring the organs and causing death by procuring them.33 Hence, if the patient's request to be taken off a ventilator or to obtain MAID has been granted, the DDR may become moot. If a patient is given the choice to die based on respect for his or her autonomy, could the same respect for autonomy give the patient the choice to die by organ donation to make the gift more valuable? Organs procured in that manner would certainly ensure better clinical outcomes in terms of graft and recipient survival. Decoupling death from donation also separates the ethical issues associated with MAID from organ donation; some MAID opponents could foreseeably be in favour of organ donation after MAID. Just as procuring organs from donors who committed suicide does not mean condoning suicide, procuring organs from donors who receive MAID does not mean that MAID is condoned, but rather that it is better to procure these organs than to let them go to waste. Morrissey proposes living organ donation prior to MAID.34 Donating one kidney would not cause the death of the donor and would therefore respect the DDR. However, it may cause more pain (postsurgery) to the patient, who is already enduring unbearable pain. Living organ donation before MAID or death by procurement of organs would provide higher quality organs that would last longer and consequently reduce the organ shortage. Both strategies respect the donor's autonomy, but neither is a better option than organ donation after MAID in terms of public trust or patient suffering.

Informing patients

There is a dilemma surrounding the matter of informing patients of the possibility of donating organs after MAID.21 ,28 Not informing patients could prevent them from performing an act they would have wanted to do, while informing them could be seen as pressure to accept donation. Bollen et al.21 places this dilemma on the physician's shoulders, with the attending physician having to decide whether to inform the patient requesting MAID. This procedure may go against the principle of justice, with some patients being informed while others are not, depending on their physician. A standardised procedure should exist to respect the principle of justice. In the province of Quebec, the CEST recommends that all healthcare institutions should make sure that all patients eligible for MAID are informed of the possibility of donating organs. Although the Transplant Québec ethics committee recognises that informing patients is justified by the principle of autonomy, it has raised concerns about the impact informing all patients could have on the public perception of donation. The Transplant Québec position statement recommends confirming that the request comes from the patients themselves and that no solicitation or pressure was exerted.30 This being said, the question of whether to ask if the patient signed a donor card, and if so, whether organ donation should be suggested, may be worth exploring.

Studies on the public acceptability of informing all eligible patients are needed to inform the design of a standardised policy. In the meantime, we believe that caution should be exercised and that informing people indirectly of organ donation after MAID, as is done in Belgium and the Netherlands,28 is a good way to avoid putting pressure on potential donors.


Quebec's Act respecting end-of-life care specifically allows confidential MAID, meaning that the family does not need to be informed of the request. The official cause of death for patients requesting MAID is the illness that has caused the unbearable suffering. This particular stipulation under Quebec law raises the question of whether organ donation is acceptable in this specific context. The CEST recommends that healthcare facilities respect the autonomy of patients who wish to keep MAID confidential and donate organs.29 The Transplant Québec ethics committee disagrees, explaining that confidentiality of organ donation cannot be guaranteed.30 A family unaware that their loved one has died through MAID may discover that organs have been procured without consulting them (since scars will be visible on the corpse). Some families could falsely believe that the OPO procured organs without obtaining any consent, and this could have deleterious consequences on organ donation. For this reason, the OPO ethics committee recommends not proceeding with organ procurement if the patient wishes to keep MAID confidential.30 Again, further studies are needed to address this contentious issue.

Public perception

Organ donation depends to a large extent on public trust.35 There are no empirical data on public perceptions of organ donation following MAID in Belgium or the Netherlands. On the one hand, if organ donation after MAID is prohibited, the public may be upset by the fact that people who want to donate organs cannot, while patients on the waiting list are dying. On the other hand, if donation after MAID is permitted, the public may think that physicians are coercing patients into opting for MAID, possibly undermining their autonomy in anticipation of procuring their organs. As a result, consent rates for organ donation could decline. To protect public trust and reduce apparent conflicts of interest, there should be a clear separation between the decision to request MAID and the decision to donate organs. Organ donation should not be discussed before the MAID request is granted, except to answer questions the patient may raise about the possibility of donation, in which case the physician should clarify whether the patient is a suitable candidate and explain that further discussions and decisions can take place later with the team in charge of organ donation, after the MAID request is granted. There should also be a clear separation between the physicians who grant the MAID request and the medical team that will consider the offer to donate organs.

Practical issues

Conscientious objection: physicians

MAID may conflict with the personal values and religious beliefs of healthcare professionals. Physicians can refuse to carry out these practices based on conscientious objection. However, under Quebec law, physicians are obliged to send the request to the director of the institution, who is responsible for finding another medical team that will agree to perform MAID.7 Physicians' refusal can be extended to organ procurement in instances of MAID. If there are no transplant surgeons available who are willing to procure the organs, this would go against the wishes of the patient and could result in the loss of the organs. However, since organ donation after MAID is a planned procedure, it would presumably be possible to transfer the patient to another centre where the transplant team is willing to procure the organs. The OPO could easily keep a list of physicians who are willing to do so.

Conscientious objection: organ recipients

It is also possible that patients on the waiting list may object to receiving organs obtained through a practice of which they disapprove. Following Belgium's experience with donation after euthanasia, Eurotransplant recommended in its 2008 annual report that patient files include a note indicating whether they would accept organs from donors after a euthanasia procedure in Belgium or the Netherlands.36 This recommendation has not yet been implemented in either country and, since it is against the law in Belgium to provide information on the cause of death to organ recipients, patients have no way of knowing whether their donor died from euthanasia.36 ,37 In the Canadian context, we believe that it would be simple to add a note to the patient's file when the patient is listed stating his or her willingness to receive organs obtained after MAID. When allocating organs, the OPO would see this note and would not allocate organs obtained after MAID to a patient who does not wish to receive these organs. The recipient's choice and values would be respected.

Impact on donors' end-of-life experience

Organ donation after MAID will have an impact on patients' end-of-life experience. Patients who request MAID do not usually die in hospital. If they want to donate their organs, their death would have to occur either in an operating room, intensive care unit or a medical ward which affects the patient and family's last moments together. This issue should be discussed with the patient and family (unless the patient does not want family to be present), and should be part of informed consent to donate organs following MAID.

To optimise transplant outcomes, the potential post-MAID organ donor would also have to undergo many physical examinations before death to determine the suitability of his or her organs. Since death is not as imminent as in cases of normal deceased organ donation, it would be appropriate to add tests that are not possible in an emergency situation to minimise the risks for recipients, such as neoplastic screening. End-of-life patients willing to donate their organs would have to be carefully informed of these tests and the additional stress involved.

Although these impacts on the end-of-life context may be seen as a burden, they can serve to reassure the public that donors who would accept these conditions have a really strong desire to donate. This type of donation cannot be performed without the complete collaboration of the patient prior to death. Benefits for potential transplant candidates should not override the right of the patients requesting MAID to refuse to undergo additional tests and die in a hospital setting.

Death and donation in the hospital setting also involve the allocation of resources. However, this should not be problematic, since resources are already needed in any organ procurement setting and transplantation has been reported to be cost-effective.38


Organ donation following MAID will probably be rare, because most patients requesting MAID will have illnesses such as cancer that are not compatible with organ donation. Belgium has had only 21 cases of organ donation after euthanasia over a period of 10 years, during which thousands of euthanasia procedures have been performed.20 Nonetheless, MAID has the potential to provide additional organs available for transplantation. Accepting to procure organ donation after MAID is a way to respect the autonomy of patients, for whom organ donation is an important value. Organ donation after MAID would be ethically acceptable if the patient who has offered to donate is competent and not under any external pressure to choose MAID or organ donation. Also, the decision to donate organs should be separate from the decision to choose MAID. However, further studies are required to examine the perspectives of the general public and healthcare professionals to develop acceptable policies and prevent any negative impacts that could be associated with organ donation after MAID.



  • Contributors JA is the primary author. She wrote the draft and final versions of the article. M-CF commented and revised all versions.

  • Funding Fonds de Recherche du Québec—Santé (Doctoral training grant).

  • Competing interests M-CF is a member of the Transplant Québec ethics committee. JA is the secretary of the Transplant Québec ethics committee.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

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