Girl's Need Breathes Life Into Debate Over Organ Allocation : Shots - Health News Sarah Murnaghan, 10, has been moved to the adult waiting list for lung transplants. Murnaghan's parents are thrilled for their daughter, who's clinging to life. But a federal judge's ruling is also raising a number of concerns.
NPR logo

Girl's Need Breathes Life Into Debate Over Organ Allocation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Girl's Need Breathes Life Into Debate Over Organ Allocation

Girl's Need Breathes Life Into Debate Over Organ Allocation

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


A judge in Philadelphia has issued a highly unusual order in a case about an organ transplant. The ruling says a 10-year-old girl awaiting a new lung must be placed on the waiting list for adult lungs.

That contradicts current rules for how lungs are distributed. As NPR's Rob Stein reports, the case has ignited an emotional debate over how organs are allocated for transplantation.

ROB STEIN, BYLINE: This case centers on Sarah Murnaghan, who has been fighting the lung disease cystic fibrosis since she was 18-months-old. Sarah's now in intensive care of the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, clinging to life. Steve Harvey is a lawyer representing Sarah's family.

STEVE HARVEY: She is very sick. If she doesn't get a donated lung, she will likely die within weeks.

STEIN: The problem is lungs are very scarce, especially for kids. And so the way the system works now, lungs that become available from adult donors are offered to other adults.

HARVEY: Children can only share in that pool at the very back of the line. And so the most severely critical child can't receive a lung donated from an adult until it's been first offered to and declined by all adults and adolescents. It's not the fairest way to do it.

STEIN: So Sarah's family started pushing to get her on the list for adult lungs. Word of her plight became public and members of Congress started pressuring the federal government, which oversees the organ allocation system, to intervene.

Earlier this week, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was grilled about the case during a congressional hearing. Here is Congressman Tom Price, a Republican from Georgia.

REPRESENTATIVE TOM PRICE: Occasionally we have the opportunity to truly affect, in a singular and specific way, somebody's life. And, Madame Secretary, I would suggest that you have that opportunity with Sarah Murnaghan.

STEIN: Sebelius said she understood the family's desperation and the congressman's concerns.

SECRETARY KATHLEEN SEBELIUS: I can't imagine anything more difficult. We have far too few donors and far too many desperately ill people.

STEIN: But Sebelius declined to order the transplant network to change the rules. Instead, she asked the network to take a look at the policy, a process she said could take months. In the meantime, Harvey went to court.

HARVEY: All we're asking for is that children be treated fairly and that they stand in line for this large pool of lungs donated from adults based on the severity of their medical condition, just like people over 12.

STEIN: And after holding a hearing on the request yesterday, a federal judge in Philadelphia ordered that Sarah be placed on the adult list, at least for the next 10 days, when they'll hold another hearing. Harvey says Sarah's parents are thrilled.

HARVEY: I can safely say I've never been hugged harder and longer in my life. They're very happy.

STEIN: But the judge's decision is raising lots of concerns. Stuart Sweet is a pediatric lung transplant surgeon who is on the board of the organ network. He says most kids who need lungs can get them from other kids, avoiding having to figure out how to make adult lungs fit into a child.

DR. STUART SWEET: Lungs from adults require trimming or use of lobes, rather than the whole lung, and that approach is not commonly used in pediatric lung transplantation. There's an added surgical complexity to using lobes rather than lungs.

STEIN: And other experts worry about the precedent being set by the case. Arthur Caplan is a bioethicist at New York University.

DR. ARTHUR CAPLAN: I can see other people saying, well, my child also needs a lung, and I want a federal judge to put her on the list. And then I can start to see other people saying, you know what, I need a liver, I need a heart, where is the federal judge, put me on too. Are we going to give organs to people who yell the loudest? Are we going to give organs to people who organize a publicity campaign?

STEIN: In fact, Harvey went to back to court today for another child placed on the adult list: an 11-year-old boy at the same hospital who also needs a lung transplant. In the meantime, Sarah's parents are hoping lungs that match their daughter become available soon. And the organ transplant network is meeting on Monday to take a look at the rules that prompted all of this in the first place. Rob Stein, NPR News.




Copyright © 2013 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.