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'Conditioned on' kidney donation, sisters' prison release prompts ethics debate

For 16 years, sisters Jamie and Gladys Scott have shared a life behind bars for their part in an $11 armed robbery. To share freedom, they must also share a kidney. (Dec. 30)

NAACP President Benjamin Jealous, who met with Barbour about the sisters' case, said the governor's office has made it clear Gladys Scott will not go back to prison if her kidney is not a match. Both sisters will follow traditional parole release procedures.

"This is a shining example of how governors should use their commutation powers," he said. "At the end of the day, the most important thing is that they are free and reunited with their families."

The sisters are a blood-type match, but it's not yet known whether they are a tissue match. They plan to relocate to Florida, where they have relatives, and future health costs would probably be paid by Medicaid or that state if they do not acquire private insurance. Kidney transplants are routinely covered by Medicaid.

The state parole board had previously denied the Scotts' applications for early release. The governor's office said their applications to him, which reached him on Christmas Day and mentioned the kidney donation, bolstered their appeal for release.

Shapiro said he fears that if it becomes widely known that donating an organ could spur release from prison, "everybody in prison would be lining up with the parole board offering to donate a kidney."

Medical ethicists and physicians around the country have been debating the situation among themselves on e-mail group lists and in conversations, said Arthur Caplan, chair of the department of medical ethics at the University of Pennsylvania.

He said Barbour's decision potentially interferes with sound medical judgment. Inmates are often not in the best physical shape because of communicable diseases, poor diet and other issues related to health, Caplan said. All of those factors contribute to a person's readiness for organ donation.

"In our system of getting kidneys from living people we would never coerce them by saying we hope you do this or else," Caplan said. "You're in a weird situation where the governor is meddling a little bit into what is basically a medical decision first."

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