There are nearly 2000 children on the organ waitlist in the U.S. While this number may shallow compared to the 100,000 adults on that list, organ donors for children are far harder to come by. This is due to the small organ sizes of children which require them to receive a transplant from another child. Because of this shortage, many parents opt to create a donor for themselves and thus the idea of a “saviour sibling” was born.
A Brief History
Savior siblings are children born to provide biological material that can help cure or treat an existing terminally ill child. Doctors are able to select embryos with the necessary genes through in vitro fertilization. In 2000, Adam Nash became the first saviour sibling when he was conceived in a lab dish to provide stem cell transplants to his sister Molly. And since then the concept of saviour siblings has become far more prominent but also controversial.
Regulation surrounding saviour siblings drastically differ between countries. It’s illegal in Switzerland and in Canada and the United States, there are no regulations. Although the very idea of a parent forcing a child to donate their organs seems unlikely to pass in a Canadian court, no such challenges have been made. However, in the United Kingdom, it is legal for parents to use fertility treatments to save a sibling. This verdict came as the result of a lengthy legal battle between two parents and the Comment on Reproductive Ethics. Ultimately, the UK’s highest court ruled in favour of the parents and approved the use of saviour siblings.
Of course, the main controversy surrounding saviour siblings comes in the form of ethics. The 2004 novel and subsequent 2009 movie “My Sister’s Keeper” paints a very bleak picture of the life of a saviour sibling. The plot revolves around a young girl’s lawsuit against her parents for forcing her to donate her organs. Obviously, this topic becomes meddled with complex ethical ramifications. On one hand, it is ethical to save a person but at the same time, it is morally wrong if it comes at the expense of forcing someone to donate their organs.
But this is the expectation of saviour children. Their only purpose is to save their siblings. Traditionally, parents have additional children to create playmates for their current child or to expand their family. Both of which are seen as “good” reasons by society but having a saviour child is often seen as selfish. The reasoning behind it goes that the parents don’t want another child, they just want to save their current one. Therefore, saviour siblings’ welfare is in jeopardy.
Furthermore, children are still human and they shouldn’t be looked at as harvestable organs. And while adults can choose whether they want to be an organ donor, children cannot. They simply do not have the capacity to make an informed decision. There is a reason why the voting age is 18 in Canada. Therefore the ethics once again comes to the topic of whether or not they’re being taken advantage of. Still, it is understandable for parents to turn to saviour siblings as the final option. No one wants to see their child die and until medicine can progress to a far more advanced stage, saviour children will continue to be a solution many will contemplate.