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Proposal for Mandatory Organ Donations for Poor Stirs Uproar

July 19, 1990

MILWAUKEE (AP) _ A proposal to sell the organs of dead welfare recipients has prompted such outrage that some people fear it will undermine other plans to solve a serious organ donor crisis.

Milwaukee County Board Supervisor T. Anthony Zielinski made the proposal in an effort to reduce the county’s burial expenses. But a flood of criticism persuaded him to drop the plan, and it now has no chance of passage.

Still, some observers are worried that the political backlash from Zielinski’s plan will doom other proposals to help relieve donor organ shortages.

One such proposal would have allowed welfare recipients to sign forms permitting the county to donate their organs after death. That plan is now likely to be scuttled, according to Jeff Aiken, a spokesman for the Milwaukee County Social Services Department.

″There is a desperate need for organs. This was one way to make welfare recipients aware of the need for organ transplant,″ Aikin said.

Zielinski had proposed selling the organs whether or not the welfare recipients had granted permission.

″If they can’t help society while they’re alive, maybe they can help it while they’re dead,″ he said after introducing the proposal in May.

He said the organs could be sold to hospitals or organ donor networks, although it is not clear whether they would be willing to purchase the organs. All organs now are donated.

Critics, including colleagues of Zielinski and advocates for the poor, said his plan would rob the poor of dignity even in death.

″I don’t think we ought to start selling poor people’s organs just because they died on welfare,″ Supervisor Elizabeth Coggs-Jones said.

Zielinski, 29, dropped the idea after initial criticism. Then he renewed anger a short time later when he suggested Wisconsin legalize donor organ sales, which now violate the state constitution.

He also proposed that the county cremate rather than bury dead welfare recipients to save money.

He has since apologized for both plans and changed his position. He also said he doesn’t support the proposal to ask welfare recipients if they would like to become organ donors.

″I’m opposed to asking welfare recipients that question. I’m opposed to cremating them. If they don’t state a choice they should be buried. It should be the preference of the individual. Whatever they want,″ Zielinski said.

Elizabeth Bolt, organ procurement director for Milwaukee’s Froedtert Memorial Hospital, said despite the serious need for more donor organs she understood why Zielinski’s proposals met opposition.

″There’s a very strong feeling that this should be voluntary. We talk about the gift of life, the gift of organ donations,″ Ms. Bolt said Wednesday.

Like Aiken, she said she believed the response to Zielinski’s proposals could doom other efforts to encourage organ donations by welfare recipients.

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