Ethics Quiz: The Kidneys of Orlac

Kidneys, okay, maybe...BUT NOT THE HANDS! NEVER THE HANDS!!!

Kidneys, okay, maybe…BUT NOT THE HANDS! NEVER THE HANDS!!!

One individual who may be having complicated sentiments this Thanksgiving is Ronald Phillips, who is current residing on Ohio’s death row. He was supposed to be dead by now, but was spared at the last moment when Governor John Kasich issued a stay of execution to ponder Phillips’ unusual request, which had been rejected by prison officials. Phillips, you see, is not a nice guy, as his current address might suggest. He was convicted of raping and killing the three-year-old daughter of his girl friend. (They subsequently broke up. It was him, not her.) He had experienced a change of heart, however, or rather, wished to facilitate one. His sister needs a heart transplant, and he wants his to be passed over to her after his execution by lethal injection. He also wants his kidneys donated to his mother, who is on dialysis because hers are failing, and any other parts of him that might save a life given to others.

Presumably this will not include his hands, because there are a couple of horror movies, one old one in particular, about what happens after that operation, and they are pretty scary. There are no horror films that I know of, however, about the aftermath of getting an executed murderer’s kidney.


Gov. Kasich, who is a nice guy, has explained that as heinous as Phillips’ crime was, the state should try to accommodate his desire to save innocent lives. The tentative plan is to hollow Phillips out, execute him in July, and then harvest anything that’s left.

Have you seen that movie, by the way?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz:

Should such a request by a condemned prisoner be granted?

I’ll play devil’s advocate here, except that the advocate for the child rapist deserves the title more than I do. I think Kasich is confused, and that Phillips or his lawyers have figured out one more way to foil the criminal justice system.

It is worth noting that they didn’t come up with this request until the week of the scheduled execution, after all other avenues had been blocked. His attorney denied that it was a delaying tactic and insisted that it was a sincere attempt to do good. After all, child rapist murderers are always looking out for opportunities to do good, don’t you know. Kudos to them for thinking out of the box, but it shouldn’t be allowed.

Being able to help your family members with organ donations is just one of the many privileges of citizenship that a condemned prisoner  forfeits when he or she is tried and convicted of a crime so terrible that it warrants death—and yes, in case you haven’t read earlier posts here on the topic, I believe that there are such crimes, and Ohio’s conclusion that raping and murdering a three-year-old girl is one of them seems eminently reasonable. Phillips wants to do something good for his family before he dies? Too bad. He should have considered that before raping a toddler. The loss of that opportunity is part and parcel of his punishment.

There is no certainty, I should note, that any of Phillips’ intended recipients could not find satisfactory organs that do not belong to murderers.

If condemned prisoners suddenly become organ donor candidates—despite those movies, that has rarely been permitted before in the U.S.— the state creates an automatic conflict of interest for itself. “Should we give this worthless, vicious killer life imprisonment, or execute him? Well, maybe we should check and see if any of his organs are a good match for someone—we’ll leave his brain out of it. And those hands, of course.” An estimated  3,500 people in Ohio and more than 120,000 nationally are currently awaiting organ donations. Lets get those killers executed: America needs kidneys and livers!

That’s not the basis on which a state should be determining a convicted criminal’s punishment, and it shouldn’t even be a confounding factor. It is a short leap from incidentally harvesting executed prisoner’s organs to executing men so that there are organs to harvest. Bonus Quiz: Guess what government regularly permits organ transplants from executed criminals? China. Too easy, right?

The other shoe this decision sets up to drop dropped almost immediately. “I realize this is a bit of uncharted territory for Ohio, but if another life can be saved by his willingness to donate his organs and tissues then we should allow for that to happen,” nice Gov. Kasich said in a statement. That ping was immediately and predictably (Kasich is mentioned as a potential Republican presidential candidate. Oh-oh…) answered by this pong:

“If the whole idea is to save a life, there’s one life to be saved simply by not executing the person at all,” said Richard Dieter, executive director of the Death Penalty Information Center.


Yes, many innocent people, especially family members and loved ones, are affected when someone violates society’s most vital laws,  takes an innocent life, and is executed after being found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Donating life saving organs is just one of an endless list of acts and activities, altruistic, charitable, beneficial or productive, that the condemned might have contributed to society, but the freedom to do those things was forfeited, and properly so, along with the right to life.

I think Kasich’s heart is in the right place, but he is wrong.

…And here is the original “The Hands of Orlac”:


Pointer and Source: ABA Journal

Source: ABC

Graphic: Pretty Clever Films

32 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Kidneys of Orlac

  1. A few comments:

    1) While irrelevant to my opinions here, I should mention that I oppose the death penalty. I do not do so on principle, mind, but due to a combination of two factors:

    A) We falsely convict an awful lot of people, and this includes an awful lot of people convicted of rape, murder,and other capitol crimes (see the Innocence Project, for instance). As such, the use of the death penalty means the execution of innocent people along with the guilty.

    B) Every statistic on the subject I’ve seen indicates that it costs the state substantially more money to execute someone than to imprison them for life.

    As such, while I still believe that some people just plain deserve to die, I also believe that the harms of the death penalty outweigh any benefits of its use.

    2) Organ supply is substantially less than demand, and there is a substantial waiting list. As such, while it *may* be possible for Phillips’s relations to get transplants from elsewhere, their success means that someone else — someone unrelated and completely uninvolved — won’t get transplants as a result.

    3) The harvesting of the organs clearly won’t harm Mr.Phillips. It’s also unlikely, unrealistic horror movies aside, to harm any recipients. It’s especially unlikely to given that they otherwise would die (or be stuck on dialysis, etc.).

    4) The need to subsequently harvest the organs complicates the execution itself: many methods of execution would not leave the organs sufficiently intact for donation. I cannot remember if that was a notable factor in this case (I read about it several weeks ago), but it is a consideration. Also, logistics.

    5) Obviously, if this is a delaying tactic (it very well may be), it’s an absurdly unethical one. Then again, we can’t exactly trust in Philips’s moral character.

    • 1) A) That is opposing the death penalty on a principle. A good principle for that matter. I’m all for the death penalty as rightfully holding certain acts so heinous, that the actor has forfeit EVERYTHING that connected them with the rest of humanity. However, due to the same concerns you have, I feel the actual execution of that penalty should be reserved for only the cases that have been proven beyond ALL doubt, not just reasonable doubt.

      1) B) I can’t stand this argument: it’s muddied. The costs of the death penalty in this argument are tallied from the moment of sentencing to the final last events involving the condemned. Those costs are grossly inflated by the opponents of the death penalty doing everything in their power to delay and hamstring the process. It isn’t a fair measurement, the data is corrupted, it isn’t a reliable comparison.


      Is this not a scenario where consequentialism can be given a pass? No one is harmed by their delaying tactic (as that seems to be their intent), and people are potentially helped, and we assume the sentence will still be carried out.

      Also, Richard Dieter’s response is still not a logical rebuttal, just as it never has been a logical rebuttal to say that ending the death penalty is a pro-life argument. It isn’t; the murderer has forfeit any expectation that their life enjoys the same consideration as those who have not committed murder.

      I’m still considering the “conflict of interest” angle. I’m certain there are checks and balances that be established that nullify or mitigate that (first and foremost not allowing the Death Penalty except in cases of near 100% certainty of guilt).

      • Tex,

        RE your response to 1A — no, not really. In theory, if the justice system was better, and the wrongful conviction of innocents for death-penalty crimes was merely an extraordinary aberration… no, I wouldn’t oppose the death penalty on those grounds. On the other hand, however, the evidence suggests that this is simply not the case.

        One statistics table I saw, for instance ( ), listed 1,226 executions between 1976 and 2010, with 130 death row exonerations in the same time period.

        (While I can’t verify the source’s accuracy, it’s fairly typical and representative of the numbers I’ve seen elsewhere, so let’s just go with it for now.)

        The number of executions actually jumps substantially in the early ’80s, which is an interesting datum — but not going there.

        Anyway, this means that the number of death row exonerations is roughly at 10% of the number of executions — and the number of innocents who *aren’t* exonerated is probably at least as high.

        Then we get into the way that the false conviction and exoneration rates indicate that false conviction is much more likely if you’re a member of a minority… and the social/societal implications of that. Sorry. Just not kosher.

        • I don’t think I’ve argued against you on those grounds. I merely pointed out to you, that you are arguing on a principle (as opposed to your lead in).

          The principle being: although the justice system is meant to hold people accountable for the behavior society deems wrong, our system is specifically designed, every step of the way, to err on the side of finding someone innocent. This principle is meant to protect most* of the accused but innocent by allowing some* of the actually guilty off the hook as well as protecting the citizenry against a zealous or tyrannical state prosecution.

          You just didn’t seem to realize that is a valid principle to argue from.

          • No, Tex, I do realize that it’s a valid principle. I just disagree with you that basing my argument on it constitutes arguing against the death penalty on principle.

            Obviously, any ethical argument that I make will reflect my principles and priorities. The same can be said for any position on any political issue.

            The problem is that saying that you oppose something “on principle” goes a bit further than this. It usually means that you think that the thing in question is *fundamentally* wrong and worthy of opposition — and oppose it accordingly.

            Perhaps “in principle” would be a more clear wording, in retrospect, but the general meaning is the same. I didn’t say “on _a_ principle”.

            Additionally, my objections aren’t so much principled as *empirical* in nature — they get very close to utilitarian balancing (even if that’s not quite what they are) and boil down to the idea that the costs of the practice exceed the benefits.

    • You pretty much beat me to the punch, particularly with your reasons for being opposed to the death penalty. There’s plenty of individual cases where I may think execution is justified, but there’s no good way to allow it for those without opening the door to way too many less certain ones.

      And so what if it’s a delaying tactic- it may feel icky to give him extra months for this, but it’s also saving innocent lives. Completely ignoring his motives, whatever they are, it’s a more noble goal for the state to save lives than to make sure this guy is killed ASAP.

  2. I agree with zoebrain. While I oppose the death penalty, this situation could be simplified by deciding that his last conscious moment will be the moment before they put him under to remove the organs, and once the organs are gone they would let his bodily functions cease naturally, within a very few seconds. I am, indeed, concerned about the slippery slope here, but if we are a nation that permits the death penalty anywhere, then we’re already in moral doo doo and shouldn’t worry about the slipper slope.

  3. My only thought is that if he were my brother, I wouldn’t want his heart, kidneys, or anything else, including a shared last name. Not that I believe in any “horror movie” type consequences, just that I’d rather be dead than know that I owe my beating heart to that worthless scum bag child-rapist murderer. Keep in mind, depending on the seriousness of the relationship, the sister may have treated that little girl as a niece. I know this is not the question being posed, but the idea of willingly taking a rapist’s heart as my own makes me want to retch. If other people want to do it, I guess that is up to them. I don’t think it is remotely ethical though to take criminals’ organs — willingly or unwillingly.

    • Jack,

      I don’t have the time to fully dissect Beth’s stream of thought, but she did allude to something I meant to comment on:

      Much like real estate agents ought to reveal that a house had a grisly murder in it, I’d submit that recipients of organ donations of this kind should get to be informed of the donor’s convictions.

      It’s all ick factor, but, like the ‘ghosts in the house for sale’ ick factor, I’d say its a strong ick factor.

      • Oooooo! Good ethics quiz, and yes, very much like the death house stories. Once again, I wish tgt was here: I know just what he’d say.
        But here I might agree with him. If I have Orlac’s liver, I’d rather not know.

        • And, although late in mentioning it: I am glad to have possibly sparked further discussion. I hope it proves to hone people’s convictions on a variety of topics, even if the primary subject isn’t one that comes up often.

        • For what it’s worth, I read the real estate agent / murder house discussions just now. I think TGT is off, for several the reasons he’s been off before. He has the legalist tendency to demand a perfectly definable line with no exceptions for every topic, with which EVERYTHING that lies on one side must be treated EXACTLY the same way and EVERYTHING on the other side must be treated EXACTLY the same way.

          But it’s an ethical question….and not one that involves ONE single factor (which would lend itself to nice black and white distinctions).

    • Forget that, if a decent human being can stay alive on the back of a piece of meat from a corpse, then I’m all for it (caveat, no matter the criminal status I don’t support taking their organs involuntarily). I think that good outweighs the bad.

  4. I remember the execution scene in the film “In Cold Blood” had Richard Hickock bragging that he had donated his corneas so somebody could see. It was a little creepy and did not mitigate the crimes he committed. Still, considering the organ shortage why not use his organs if that’s his wish. Nobody in their right mind is going to think better of him.

  5. I was hoping the comments wouldn’t become a pro/con DP debate.
    I know there is an organ shortage and as much as I enjoy living, I don’t know if I could live with a baby-raper’s heart in my chest.
    I also think this scumbag doesn’t deserve to have any right to donate his organs.
    He killed and raped a child and now he is supposed to be serving his punishment, not asking for any favors.

  6. I am surprised at the amount of “ick factor” being displayed here. I hope that I never need an organ transplant, but if I do, what difference would it make who donated it? If I need it to live, and I am a good match, I would have no problem taking that organ and living as much life as I had left. It’s like someone having an “ick factor” objection to cremation vs. body-in-casket burial. There is no difference. You are dead. Your surviving loved ones can’t dig up your bones and hug them when they get lonely. And I will never believe that any end-of-time resurrection/rising from the dead/whatever requires body intact — what about good people who are burned to a crisp in an accident or fire, good people who have lost multiples part of their bodies prior to death, etc.? Are they excluded from eternal bliss, like someone showing up at The Palm without a tie?

    Scumbags are indeed scumbags, but my moral compass dictates that even scumbags can be redeemed, even if they don’t deserve it.

    • For me, the ick factor is that I would think of my worthless criminal brother every time I heard my heartbeat. I just wouldn’t want the constant reminder — it would be like leaving up the smiling family photos instead of getting rid of them all.

      • Maybe I’m too much of a pollyanna or I’m taking too much Lexapro, but I think I would be happy that at least some part of my scumbag brother is going on to do some good.

  7. I do not think the death row inmate should be allowed to donate his organs. It sets a very bad precedent which will have huge consequences and cause many more problems in the future.

    By the way, I believe I read that Texas has even had to dial back on the last meal of those to be executed due to the extreme cost of some of those meals.

  8. First, a murderer or other capital criminal being held responsible for their conduct seems to be in conflict with the same individual being allowed to display charity when you say they have forfeit their freedom, all of it, when they have committed the capital crime. I’m not so sure it should be viewed from that angle. Punishment serves a variety of purposes. Some petty crimes receive punishment designed to compensate, as best as can be, the victim – the victim being dead, Capital Punishment does not serve this purpose. Some crimes are of an anti-social nature and the apt punishment seeks to rehabilitate or reconcile the perpetrator to the community. Capital Crimes are so heinous that we have determined that the perpetrator must be completely cut off from society, through their death. In this case, the punishment does nothing for the victim OR for the criminal; the punishment is designed solely for the benefit of society.

    If the criminal wishes to donate his/her organs to (what we must assume is to salve their own conscience – even though we can, probably, cynically assume is just a delaying tactic), we should not care one bit. They are gaining no material benefit from the community, nor are they engaging in any direct interaction with the community – so the act of cutting them off from the community as part of the punishment is still complete.

    On the contrary, refusing their wish to donate their organs does NO additional benefit to society and that is how Capital Punishment must be viewed, as we have already determined it does not exist to compensate the victim nor to rehabilitate the criminal. So if the refusal does no additional benefit in the eyes of the community, then I see no reason why to deny the ability of the condemned individual to satiate their own conscience…because that is in their own minds and no one else’s, so we shouldn’t care what he must do in his own mind to make his own amends.

    An argument could even be advanced that additional harm is done to society if we were to deny the charitable donation of their organs. I’m no fan of using economics to back principle, so I won’t use the “his/her donation would increase supply in an already scarce charity pool”. But, to say “no you cannot donate your organs because of your crime” seems to be out of spite more than anything. If it doesn’t rationally add to the benefit of society, then it must have an emotional source. I think attaching emotions as a motive for additional punishment is a terrible thing for the community. There should be no display of or connection to emotion when executing a sentence. It just seems spiteful and malicious, with a hint of “nyah nyah nyah” attached to it. Anyone could rationalize it by saying “they deserve the spite and malice for what they did” – and they certainly do, but let that be inside all the people who wish it. Emotion should not govern the sentence one iota.

    Should we deny the request to be an organ donor, we may as well also nullify and void any last will and testament the perpetrator maintained…to the dismay of any *innocent* family and friends of the convicted.

    Second, should recipients of such donations be alerted to the origins of the donation? The discussion could go very deeply in the Ethics Quiz derived from this topic. It boils down to a few options:

    – Is there an obligation to disclose to EVERY recipient, the donor, whether the recipient wants to know or not?
    – Is there an obligation to protect the privacy of the donor, even though deceased (criminal or not) if the donor desired anonymity?
    – If there is determined to be no obligation to tell the recipient, but the recipient asks, is there then an obligation to answer?
    – What if donor’s preferred anonymity and recipients demanded knowledge come into conflict?

    I don’t know the answer to this yet, but I think in general: a recipient has the right to know, but a donor has the right to privacy, a donor’s right to privacy is forfeit if they are convicted criminals, should a recipient demand knowledge as a condition of receiving an organ, they don’t get to receive anonymous donations. I think a general rule of thumb to solve MOST conflicts would to simply ask a candidate what ‘types’ of donors they would refuse and then only proceed when ‘appropriate’ organs are acquired.

    Third, would this create a conflict of interest with the State? This is a slippery slope argument, but I’d submit a valid one. Our Founding Fathers recognized that when discussing Power, slippery slopes are valid arguments. They designed our entire system acknowledging that Power always tends towards despotism and tyranny. A series of appropriate checks on the ability to donate organs from death row would need to be established.

    Should the state become zealous in its prosecution of accused capital criminals, I think changing the standard of sentencing from “beyond reasonable doubt” to “beyond all doubt” would be necessary. This would naturally reduce the overall number of the condemned out of desire to preserve the fraction of falsely convicted innocents.

    To keep those convicted beyond all doubt from abusing the donor system in order to stay execution, I’d submit that there would need to be a closure window prior to their execution, determined by however long it takes to schedule the procedures necessary to remove organs, after which the convicted CANNOT suddenly decide to be a donor. (Yes that muddles the absolutes discussed in the First point, but it’d be necessary to avoid abuse). OR, just let the abusers abuse it for another month or two of life.

          • Fine by me. Better than killing the tiny fraction of the innocent that have been convicted with “reasonable doubt”.

            I had the hang up also that you have. Ask Sarge983: he words the argument much better. He convinced me- pro-death penalty, but with a higher standard for sentencing. Otherwise, life imprisonment.

          • Of course there are convictions where there is no doubt at all. John Wilkes Booth? Jack Ruby? Sirhan Sirhan? The Tuscon shooter, who was captured at the scene? I would have no trouble with a standard for executions that required that kind of certainty. As long as they were executed from that point, immediately and without endless appeals.

            • You are right Jack…there would be some convictions which would be a slam dunk…but in the great majority of cases I think I would find it very hard to say that “I have no doubt at all” when I know how unreliable witness testimony can be along with any confessions which can be coerced or given falsely by the defendant for whatever reason…not to mention, unfortunately, corruption within the judicial system. Besides, there is a law that says a person cannot “know something without a doubt” until that person reaches the age of 65. I believe you can find that in the Constitution… or the Declaration of Independence…..I always get those two mixed up.

Leave a Reply to texagg04 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.