Alabama inmates possibly had organs harvested without consent

By Claire Wolters | Fact-checked by Davi Sherman
Published April 25, 2024

Key Takeaways

  • Criteria for consensual organ donors in prison vary among institutions.

  • However, people who are incarcerated may be vulnerable to nonconsensual use of their organs after death.

  • Inconsistencies in organ handling demonstrate ethical issues in both medical and prison systems.

Organ donation criteria is a highly debated topic, especially when it comes to donations from people who are incarcerated. People who are incarcerated are not always permitted to donate organs to others, as rules and regulations vary among state institutions. However, people who are incarcerated may also be vulnerable to nonconsensual medical actions, such as having their organs removed.

In Alabama, five families have filed lawsuits alleging that their loved ones, who the Alabama Department of Corrections previously held, had their organs removed without permission by the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s (UAB) Department of Pathology following their deaths.[] 

Inconsistencies in how the organs of incarcerated people can be used with and without consent highlight ethical issues in the prison system and in guidelines for organ transplants.

Across US prisons, organ donor standards are inconsistent

According to the Organ Procurement and Transplant Network (OPTN), it is unethical to “completely exclude” people who are convicted of crimes from medical treatment, including organ transplants and donation.[]

Adding to the controversy, prisons have inconsistent rules about whether or not those incarcerated can donate organs—and what type of organ transplants they can be donors for. For example, some prisons allow incarcerated people to be any type of organ donor, while others only allow donations after death or to family members.

In a 2023 study on prisons in the US and their policies regarding organ donation by incarcerated individuals, researchers found that out of 21 carceral systems with policies on the topic, 15 allowed people to donate organs while living; 13 permitted people to register to donate after death. And 12, including the Federal Bureau of Prisons,  allowed people to donate organs only to immediate family members. According to the study, Alabama did not have a policy on the issue.[]

What’s going on in Alabama?

The Alabama lawsuit alleges that five incarcerated people’s organs were nonconsensually taken during autopsies of their bodies after their deaths, according to local Alabama news network WLBT3. Family members received the bodies following the autopsies, which is when some of them realized that the organs were missing. The different bodies were missing some or all of their internal organs, WLBT 3 stated.[]

The purpose of taking the organs was unclear. According to the WLBT 3 report on the lawsuit, university representatives told families that it was “standard practice” to retain organs following an autopsy; pointed to their status as a “teaching institution”; and said that it “wasn’t the university’s policy to return them after an autopsy.”

WLBT 3 reported that UAB responded to the lawsuit, saying that it is “in compliance with laws governing autopsies.”

“UAB only conducts autopsies for incarcerated individuals after the ADOC certifies that the autopsy has been properly authorized by an appropriate legal representative of the deceased,” the university continued. “A panel of medical ethicists reviewed and endorsed our protocols regarding autopsies conducted for incarcerated persons. Due to pending litigation and laws related to the privacy of medical records, we cannot comment on any specific autopsy.”

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