AMSTERDAM, Netherlands - A Dutch reality show that claims to be trying to draw attention to a shortage of organ donors said Tuesday it would go ahead with a program in which a terminally ill woman will choose a contestant to receive one of her kidneys.
The program, “Big Donor Show,” has been attacked as unethical and tasteless. One member of the Dutch parliament suggested the government should block Friday’s broadcast.
“We know that this program is super controversial and some people will think it’s tasteless, but we think the reality is even more shocking and tasteless: Waiting for an organ is just like playing the lottery,” Laurens Drillich, chairman of the BNN network, said in a statement.
He said waiting lists in the Netherlands are more than four years long and 200 patients die annually for lack of a donor.
The network identified the donor as “Lisa,” a 37-year-old woman with an inoperable brain tumor. During the show, she will hear interviews with the three candidates, their families and friends before choosing who will get her kidney.
The show is being produced by Endemol NV, the creator of the “Big Brother” series.
A spokeswoman for BNN said that there could be no guarantees the donation would actually be made, “but the intention is” Lisa’s donation would be carried out before she died.
That is because her wish to donate to a particular candidate “wouldn’t be valid anymore after her death” under Dutch donation rules, Marieke Saly said. If Lisa does donate one kidney while living, the other kidney may still be awarded to someone else on a national donation waiting list under the country’s organ allotment system.
Viewers will be able to vote for the candidate they feel is most deserving via SMS text message, but “Lisa will determine who the happy one is,” BNN said in a statement.
Saly could not say how much it will cost to send an SMS, but most TV programs charge around $1.35.
Joop Atsma, a lawmaker of the ruling Christian Democrats, raised the issue in parliament, asking the government whether the program violated any law.
“Is it desirable that public broadcasting would go down this path, and is there no way to send a strong signal that we reject this?” he said.
Education Minister Ronald Plasterk, addressing parliament on behalf of the government because the health minister was ill, replied that there were serious questions about whether the transplant would actually go through as BNN has advertised it — but that there was no way to stop the program from airing.
“The information I have right now tells me that the program is unfitting and unethical, especially due to the competitive element, but it’s up to program makers to make their choices,” he said.
“The constitution forbids me from interfering in the content of programs: Let there be no mistake about that, that would be censorship.”
He said that there were practical barriers.
“In every transplant the tissue of the donor and the patient must match as much as possible,” Plasterk said. “The doctors in this program can’t make any concessions on that front.”
There also was doubt whether Lisa’s organs could be donated at all because it might spread her cancer, he said.
“So it’s very possible that in practical terms we’re not talking about anything here, because it’s possible this transplant can’t take place,” he said.
Noting the shortage of donors, he said it was a good time for a debate on the question of what incentives to donate are ethical.
He cited the example of a Dutch funeral home that is offering discounts to the families of people who were registered as donors, and an idea presented by the country’s Kidney Institute to give registered donors preference on organ waiting lists.
"Contestants to vie for kidney on reality show." Associated Press. 29 May 2007. MSNBC.com. 30 May 2007. http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18919768/