Hospitals would be required to ask the families of dying patients if they would donate their relatives' organs when they die under proposed legislation before the D.C. Council.
The bill was introduced by council member William R. Spaulding (D-Ward 5), whose ward has been the subject of a National Kidney Foundation effort in recent years to encourage blacks to donate their organs at death.
If the bill passes, the District would join 22 states that have enacted "required request" laws that aim at translating widespread public support for organ donation into actual bequests.
"Although some may view it as intrusive to request a donation when a family is grieving, I believe that this is precisely the moment when life is most cherished," Spaulding said.
The bill would require that hospital employes be trained on how to perform requests. Under the measure, families would not be asked if their relative had religious beliefs that discourage donation or if the relative had not wanted to donate body parts.
National polls have shown that 72 percent of Americans favor organ donation. However, organs are given by only 15 percent of the 20,000 potential donors each year, according to the National Kidney Foundation. In most cases, families are not asked about donation, the foundation found, particularly because many doctors are not comfortable asking this difficult question of patients' families.
States that have passed request laws have seen dramatic increases in organ donation. In New York, organ donations have increased by more than 40 percent since that state's law was enacted in January, according to Kidney Foundation figures.
The lack of donor organs is particularly acute in the District because of low donation rates by blacks, who make up 70 percent of the District population, and because the District has the nation's highest rate of hypertension among blacks, which can lead to kidney failure. As a result, most of the patients in dialysis clinics throughout the city -- about 140 of whom are waiting for kidneys -- are black.
A 1984 Howard University study found that although more blacks need donated organs, blacks are reluctant to donate because of religious beliefs, distrust of the medical establishment or unfounded fears that a traditional funeral could not be held.
Dr. Clive Callender, author of the study and director of the nation's only transplantation center in a black hospital, found that 41 of the hospital's 47 donated organs in 1984 came from whites.
Callender said religious fears are most difficult to overcome. "The main myth is that when you die your organs should go with you to the grave so that you can be reborn," he said. "We tell people they're not going to be intact anyway; the body is not immune to destruction. If there's the great getting-up morning with Christ, He'll be powerful to restore us all any way He'd like."
In addition to the Ward 5 organ donor project, the city's Division of Motor Vehicles has become more diligent about posting signs promoting organ donation. Several of the posters feature prominent blacks who have signed donor cards, including former Bullets star Rick Mahorn and former senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts.