I chose to write about an article called “Giving Life after Death,” written by Christian Longo and published in the New York Times on March 5, 2011. Mr. Longo is currently serving time on death row in the state of Oregon, following a guilty sentence of first-degree murder of his wife and three children. Mr. Longo does not deny his guilt; rather, he has petitioned the state of Oregon to request that after he is executed, his organs be donated to recipients who are on the organ recipient list to receive a heart, kidneys, lungs, and other body parts that could potentially save lives and/or improve the qualities of life of people who are very ill. This paper will discuss briefly the case that he makes for being able to donate organs for the good of anonymous patients as well as the opposition to the idea that he has encountered.
The state of Oregon has denied Mr. Longo’s request, citing various reasons: that the combination of three drugs used for lethal injections can damage organs, to which Mr. Longo asserts that other states use just one drug which does not damage organs (Longo, 2011); a concern that the organs of prisoners may be infected with HIV or hepatitis, the risk of which, as he points out, could easily be established through testing; concerns about safety in case prisoners are trying to find excuses to go to the hospital in order to escape, although as he states, prisoners are frequently leaving the prison to go to hospitals for many reasons; and the so-called moral reason to oppose the donations because of the country’s despicable history of using prisoners to conduct scientific experiments, and the doubts cast on an inmate’s ability to make a sincere voluntary consent (Longo, 2011.) Mr. Longo appears to be making a sincere effort to perform a final act of selflessness, given his unspeakable crimes. He seeks no rewards other than an apparent motivation to do something good before he dies.
Following Kohlberg’s stages of moral development, Mr.Longo appears to finally have achieved Stage 5, the stage of post conventional or principled morality, which could not be more distinct from the stages in which he was clearly involved when he committed his crimes. In this stage, there is a focus on justice, dignity for all life, and the common good although according to Kohlberg, most people do not achieve this stage prior to middle age (Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.) Mr. Longo’s age is not given, but since he has been on death row for eight years, the chances are that he is in or close to middle age. This stage is characterized by “moral action in a specific situation that is not defined by referring to a list of rules, but rather from reasonable application of universal, abstract, and moral principles (Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.) Mr. Longo’s desire to protect and preserve human life seems to be genuinely motivated by a feeling of obligation to society as well as a sense of public good. In this stage, conventional authorities are typically resisted, being replaced by challenging issues pertaining to justice. A question that characterizes this stage is “What is the just thing to do given all the circumstances? What will bring the most good to the largest number of people?” (Kohlberg’s Stages of Moral Development.)
A case can also be made for Mr. Longo ‘s having achieved Stage 6, Universal Ethical Principles, the final level of moral reasoning at which stage people pursue internalized principles of justice, despite the fact that they may be in conflict with standards and laws (Cherry, 2011.) Mr. Longo is pursuing his case to donate his organs regardless of the fact that the state has already established rules that forbid organ donation by inmates. By bringing attention to this cause through an op-ed column in the New York Times, he is publicizing the issue and making it seem ludicrous that any state would prevent organ donation that would save up to eight people’s lives per donor (Longo, 2011.)
This case presents the state of Oregon as an entity in Stage 4 of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development: maintaining social order. At this stage of development, Oregon as an institution is taking into account society as a whole when making the decision not to allow organ donation by inmates; the state’s focus is on “maintaining law and order by following the rules, doing one’s duty and respecting authority” (Cherry, 2011.) Although typically one does not think of the state as an individual capable of developing morally, in this situation, there is absolutely a moral judgment being made being made based on the avoidance of disorder, such as if the prisoners wishing to donate their organs were to make an attempt to escape, and by following previously established rules that prevent experimentation on prisoners, although they are not relevant in this case.
Undoubtedly, Mr. Longo’s crimes were inexcusable, but he does not ask the reader for compassion, forgiveness, or empathy. Instead he makes a practical case for how many people could benefit from having organ donations from prisoners on death row who have made the choice, or wish to, to perform one final act of good and selflessness during their time on earth. They have absolutely nothing to gain in concrete terms, and if they are motivated by wanting to ensure an afterlife that includes going to heaven, I find nothing wrong with that. If so many people could benefit from these organ donations, there is no legitimate rationalization to deny potential patients the chance to live a full, healthier life.