Try 1 month for 99¢

When Henry Mackaman got his driver’s license, he registered to be an organ donor.

Two years ago, as a 21-year-old UW-Madison student, Mackaman died from meningitis.

His family supported the recovery of his organs, knowing he had authorized donation, said Meredith Leigh, Mackaman’s mother. Seven organs went to five recipients, including Walter Goodman, a UW-Madison professor, who received his heart.

“It gives me comfort that my son has saved five lives — and that, in a way, he lives on,” Leigh said.

Online donor registries, like one that started in Wisconsin in 2010, have increased attention to organ donation around the country.

Before Wisconsin launched its registry, residents who got stickers on their licenses or otherwise signed up to be donors expressed intent. Doctors still had to get consent from family.

Now, people who sign up online or when getting or renewing their driver’s license give first-person consent. No further permission is required, though parents can override the decision if the potential donor is under age 18.

All states have donor registries. The rate of participation varies from 87 percent of adults in Montana to 24 percent in New York, according to Donate Life America.

In Wisconsin, more than 2.6 million people have signed up — 59 percent of adults, higher than the national average of 51 percent. About three-fourths have registered since 2010 with first-person consent, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Mike Anderson

Mike Anderson, executive director of UW Organ and Tissue Donation.

First-person consent makes donation easier on families because they can honor a choice the deceased person made instead of having to decide themselves, said Mike Anderson, executive director of UW Organ and Tissue Donation, the Madison-based organ procurement organization for most of Wisconsin.

“It has been the best thing that’s happened for donation,” Anderson said.

Organ donation in the United States is an opt-in system. But in many countries — including Belgium, Columbia, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Russia, Spain and Sweden — people must opt out if they don’t want their organs taken after death.

A study last year of 48 countries — 23 opt-in, 25 opt-out — found that opt-out countries have more deceased donors but fewer living donors.

Overall, opt-out countries have more kidney and liver donations, the main organs for which living donations are possible, according to the University of Nottingham study in the journal BMC Medicine.

Some countries, including Spain, improved donation rates significantly after adopting opt-out systems, the Nottingham researchers wrote.

But in other countries, including Brazil and France, opt-out consent “had a detrimental effect on donation, which was partly attributed to increased level of mistrust towards medical professionals,” the researchers wrote.

Subscribe to Breaking News

* I understand and agree that registration on or use of this site constitutes agreement to its user agreement and privacy policy.

David Wahlberg is the health and medicine reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal.