One organ donor can save seven lives - but only if their family is aware of their wishes, caution experts. (Brendan Smialowski, AFP)

When it comes to organ donation, women may be more likely to give than to receive

Ina Skosana
If you’re keen to save a life through donation after you die, speak now or forever hold your peace.

Eight out of 10 registered organ donors in South Africa are women and, although there is no formal research into why this is the case, the Organ Donor Foundation suggests women may be more likely to commiserate with the plight of patients in need of transplants.

“Our opinion is that women are sympathetic in general and are more responsive to calls to action of a philanthropic nature,” says Samantha Nicholls, the organisation’s executive director.

But there was no difference by gender in people’s willingness to donate their organs or those of a relative, a 2014 study published in the South African Medical Journal found. The research was conducted among more than 3 000 South Africans over 10 years.

Women’s giving nature regarding organs has been documented in international research. Studies also show that women are more likely to give than to receive.

Research published in the journal Biology of Sex Differences in July reviewed data collected in Italy. It shows that, although women were more likely to be organ donors, they were less likely than men to receive a donated organ.

The researchers note that this may be because of higher rates of certain diseases such as alcohol-related cirrhosis of the liver and some types of cancer found in Italian men.

South Africa has an opt-in system of organ donation, says the South African Medical Journal study. This means that, once a person is dead, their organs cannot be donated without their family’s consent even if the deceased was a registered organ donor.

Organ donation and transplant rates vary around the world and, according to a 2012 British Journal of Anaesthesia article, not enough people elect to donate their organs after they die.

Some countries such as Spain have changed laws to meet the need for donor organs. Spaniards must now state that they do not wish to be organ donors to avoid having organs removed after death.

But researchers warn that this kind of opt-out system would not work in South Africa. They argue that such a move would undermine fundamental religious and cultural rights. Instead, they recommend that people be encouraged to talk to their family about their desire to be organ donors after they die.

Nicholls says women’s increased willingness to donate could make them much-needed advocates. “Women are more acceptable towards organ donation — they could become activists and messengers promoting organ donation to family members.”

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