France Just Radically Changed its Organ Donation Policy

Today, a person’s organs will be harvested, whether or not their family is against it. 

 

Think of a place where you go periodically where you are around about 20 people. It can be your job, a classroom, or when you’re amongst fellow commuters on your daily ride to work. Now, picture those people vanishing, one by one before your very eyes, never to return. There is nothing anyone can do. And it doesn’t happen once, but over and over, day after day. Sound like the plot of a horror movie? It’s reality. 22 people are lost each day in the US waiting for a healthy organ for transplant.


Over 119,000 names are on the national transplant waiting list as you read this. Every ten minutes, another name is added. These are fathers, mothers, siblings, partners, and someday if your luck runs out, maybe even you. 30,970 transplants occurred in the US in 2015, the highest number on record. The rest wait and hope to get lucky.

There are some urban legends out there, such as first responders not administering lifesaving procedures if the person is an organ donor, which it goes without saying is patently false. However, there is an extreme shortage of organs the world over. And out of 1,000 deaths, only three people leave suitable organs. To compound the issue further, there aren’t enough donors on the list. While 95% of Americans say they support organ donation, only 48% are donors themselves.

Western Europe has a similar problem. There, the UK has one of the lowest rates of consent. A record number of transplants occurred in that country last year. Even so, the UK is 80% short of its target, which is supposed to be met by 2020. Relative opposition is one of the biggest stumbling blocks. Relatives can veto the process even if the person is registered to be a donor. In the EU, 86,000 were on the organ transplant list in 2014. Today a good percentage, around 19,000, are French nationals. Because of this, French MPs have taken a radical step to narrow the gap.  


Viable organs for transplant are scarce. France is attempting to remove some roadblocks.

Starting January 1, instead of actively selecting to be an organ donor, adults in France will automatically be enrolled. There is an option to abstain, but you have to officially opt out. Currently the national refusal register (Registre National des Refus) has 150,000 people in its database. One can sign up online, however. So it isn’t terribly inconvenient. The process is even outlined on the bureau’s Facebook page. Those who are opposed who do not register, can leave a signed letter or even tell their loved one orally, which must be put into writing and given to their doctor at the time of death.

One shocking element, the person’s organs are harvested, whether or not the family supports it. This is because previous to the new law, when someone’s wishes weren’t made clear before their death, and relatives were approached about the subject of donation, the family refused up to 40% of the time. Health minister Marisol Touraine proposed this change in policy. In the new wording of the law, family members will be “told” of their loved ones organ donation rather than “consulted.” According to Socialist MP Michèle Delaunay, family members grieving over the death of a loved one often refuse donation initially, and later on regret it.

The law wasn’t without opposition. Around 270 healthcare professionals, mostly doctors and nurses, signed a petition against the new rules. Besides questioning its ethical stance, petitioners say the law could put more static between relatives and hospital staff during a trying time. One surgeon said it would make some family members “maddened” and even “unmanageable.”

French organ donation organizations were happy, as one might expect. One such group, Greffe de Vie, said it could save 500 to 1,000 lives per year, by its estimates. Other nations in Europe have similar systems, such as Spain, Austria, and Wales. Though controversy can crop up, research has shown that such a policy can boost organ donation. Other countries are also considering changes to their policies. This isn’t the only attempt by the French government boost organ donation. A film about it aimed at 15 to 25 year-olds was released last November, promoted by the Agence de la Biomédecine.

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New fossils suggest human ancestors evolved in Europe, not Africa

Experts argue the jaws of an ancient European ape reveal a key human ancestor.

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  • The jaw bones of an 8-million-year-old ape were discovered at Nikiti, Greece, in the '90s.
  • Researchers speculate it could be a previously unknown species and one of humanity's earliest evolutionary ancestors.
  • These fossils may change how we view the evolution of our species.

Homo sapiens have been on earth for 200,000 years — give or take a few ten-thousand-year stretches. Much of that time is shrouded in the fog of prehistory. What we do know has been pieced together by deciphering the fossil record through the principles of evolutionary theory. Yet new discoveries contain the potential to refashion that knowledge and lead scientists to new, previously unconsidered conclusions.

A set of 8-million-year-old teeth may have done just that. Researchers recently inspected the upper and lower jaw of an ancient European ape. Their conclusions suggest that humanity's forebearers may have arisen in Europe before migrating to Africa, potentially upending a scientific consensus that has stood since Darwin's day.

Rethinking humanity's origin story

The frontispiece of Thomas Huxley's Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature (1863) sketched by natural history artist Benjamin Waterhouse Hawkins. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

As reported in New Scientist, the 8- to 9-million-year-old hominin jaw bones were found at Nikiti, northern Greece, in the '90s. Scientists originally pegged the chompers as belonging to a member of Ouranopithecus, an genus of extinct Eurasian ape.

David Begun, an anthropologist at the University of Toronto, and his team recently reexamined the jaw bones. They argue that the original identification was incorrect. Based on the fossil's hominin-like canines and premolar roots, they identify that the ape belongs to a previously unknown proto-hominin.

The researchers hypothesize that these proto-hominins were the evolutionary ancestors of another European great ape Graecopithecus, which the same team tentatively identified as an early hominin in 2017. Graecopithecus lived in south-east Europe 7.2 million years ago. If the premise is correct, these hominins would have migrated to Africa 7 million years ago, after undergoing much of their evolutionary development in Europe.

Begun points out that south-east Europe was once occupied by the ancestors of animals like the giraffe and rhino, too. "It's widely agreed that this was the found fauna of most of what we see in Africa today," he told New Scientists. "If the antelopes and giraffes could get into Africa 7 million years ago, why not the apes?"

He recently outlined this idea at a conference of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists.

It's worth noting that Begun has made similar hypotheses before. Writing for the Journal of Human Evolution in 2002, Begun and Elmar Heizmann of the Natural history Museum of Stuttgart discussed a great ape fossil found in Germany that they argued could be the ancestor (broadly speaking) of all living great apes and humans.

"Found in Germany 20 years ago, this specimen is about 16.5 million years old, some 1.5 million years older than similar species from East Africa," Begun said in a statement then. "It suggests that the great ape and human lineage first appeared in Eurasia and not Africa."

Migrating out of Africa

In the Descent of Man, Charles Darwin proposed that hominins descended out of Africa. Considering the relatively few fossils available at the time, it is a testament to Darwin's astuteness that his hypothesis remains the leading theory.

Since Darwin's time, we have unearthed many more fossils and discovered new evidence in genetics. As such, our African-origin story has undergone many updates and revisions since 1871. Today, it has splintered into two theories: the "out of Africa" theory and the "multi-regional" theory.

The out of Africa theory suggests that the cradle of all humanity was Africa. Homo sapiens evolved exclusively and recently on that continent. At some point in prehistory, our ancestors migrated from Africa to Eurasia and replaced other subspecies of the genus Homo, such as Neanderthals. This is the dominant theory among scientists, and current evidence seems to support it best — though, say that in some circles and be prepared for a late-night debate that goes well past last call.

The multi-regional theory suggests that humans evolved in parallel across various regions. According to this model, the hominins Homo erectus left Africa to settle across Eurasia and (maybe) Australia. These disparate populations eventually evolved into modern humans thanks to a helping dollop of gene flow.

Of course, there are the broad strokes of very nuanced models, and we're leaving a lot of discussion out. There is, for example, a debate as to whether African Homo erectus fossils should be considered alongside Asian ones or should be labeled as a different subspecies, Homo ergaster.

Proponents of the out-of-Africa model aren't sure whether non-African humans descended from a single migration out of Africa or at least two major waves of migration followed by a lot of interbreeding.

Did we head east or south of Eden?

Not all anthropologists agree with Begun and his team's conclusions. As noted by New Scientist, it is possible that the Nikiti ape is not related to hominins at all. It may have evolved similar features independently, developing teeth to eat similar foods or chew in a similar manner as early hominins.

Ultimately, Nikiti ape alone doesn't offer enough evidence to upend the out of Africa model, which is supported by a more robust fossil record and DNA evidence. But additional evidence may be uncovered to lend further credence to Begun's hypothesis or lead us to yet unconsidered ideas about humanity's evolution.