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Minerva Medica 2010 December;101(6):445-56

language: English

Ethical models in bioethics: theory and application in organ allocation policies

Petrini C.

Bioethics Unit, National Institute of Health, Rome, Italy


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Policies for allocating organs to people awaiting a transplant constitute a major ethical challenge. First and foremost, they demand balance between the principles of beneficence and justice, but many other ethically relevant principles are also involved: autonomy, responsibility, equity, efficiency, utility, therapeutic outcome, medical urgency, and so forth. Various organ allocation models can be developed based on the hierarchical importance assigned to a given principle over the others, but none of the principles should be completely disregarded. An ethically acceptable organ allocation policy must therefore be in conformity, to a certain extent, with the requirements of all the principles. Many models for organ allocation can be derived. The utilitarian model aims to maximize benefits, which can be of various types on a social or individual level, such as the number of lives saved, prognosis, and so forth. The prioritarian model favours the neediest or those who suffer most. The egalitarian model privileges equity and justice, suggesting that all people should have an equal opportunity (casual allocation) or priority should be given to those who have been waiting longer. The personalist model focuses on each individual patient, attempting to mesh together all the various aspects affecting the person: therapeutic needs (urgency), fairness, clinical outcomes, respect for persons. In the individualistic model the main element is free choice and the system of opting-in is privileged. Contrary to the individualistic model, the communitarian model identities in the community the fundamental elements for the legitimacy of choices: therefore, the system of opting-out is privileged. This article does not aim at suggesting practical solutions. Rather, it furnishes to decision makers an overview on the possible ethical approach to this matter.

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carlo.petrini@iss.it