The little-known French organ law that helps save lives

Most people are presumed to be organ donors in France
Most people are presumed to be organ donors in France. Photo: AFP
To mark world organ-donor day, we look at France's law when it comes to organ donations, which you probably aren't familiar with.
While in many countries you have to opt-in to be an organ donor, it doesn’t work that way in France. 
 
In fact, every adult in France is presumed to be an organ donor, unless they have specifically registered not to be one.
 
This has been the case since the Loi Caillavet (‘Caillavet Law’) was passed in 1976, making everyone an organ donor except for those who have explicitly refused, as well as minors and those under someone else’s guardianship (such as the mentally disabled). 
 
If you want to opt out of becoming an organ donor, it is necessary to sign up in an online registry or by mail and provide an official piece of identification
 
The Loi Caillavet was introduced in order to combat the shortage of organ donations made compared to the number of patients in need of a transplant but despite the law, France still suffers from a shortage of organ donations.

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People in France can now go online to opt out of being organ donors
Photo: AFP
 
In 2015, 553 people died while awaiting an organ transplant, according to Le Monde, which also reveals another interesting statistic: while 79 percent of survey respondents say that they are willing to donate their organs, doctors are only allowed to perform the removal 67 percent of the time when the conditions are right for such an operation.
How to explain this gap? In practice, French doctors will always consult with the family members of the potential donor before performing the procedure, and are met with a refusal about a third of the time.
 
In order to present such a refusal, the family member must attest – in writing – to a previously expressed rejection of organ donation by the potential donor. 
 
If you’re a foreigner deceased (or in the process thereof) in French territory, however, the law in your home country takes priority.
 
That means that if you haven’t expressed willingness to become an organ donor in a home country where expressed consent is necessary, your consent won’t be assumed, as it would be for a French citizen.
 
Organ donation remains a subject capable of arousing debate and discussion, in France as elsewhere. Those interested may be interested in Maylis de Kerengal’s critically-acclaimed novel, Réparer les vivants (‘Mend the Living’), or its 2016 film adaptation.

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  1. It sounds, oddly, like a French organ donor card would be a good idea in practice.

    As a foreigner, I am carrying one in my wallet, but would French police/ medical services look for it?

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