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Organs without Bodies: Solid Organ Transplant Recipients' Exposure and Response to Institutional Discourse

Tue, August 14, 8:30 to 10:10am, Philadelphia Marriott Downtown, Floor: Level 4, Franklin Hall 10

Abstract

In the public sphere, organ transplantation is dominated by a discourse according to which organ donation amounts to a “gift of life,” an altruistic and moral act on the part of donors and their families (Healey, 2006). However, when potential organ recipients are being evaluated for transplant and are active on the organ waiting list, transplant institutions deploy a contradictory discourse that negates the role of the organ donor and encourages potential recipients to think about organs as disembodied objects. The first part of this paper gives a brief discussion of the ways in which (and reasons why) the history of the institutionalization of organ transplantation gave rise to the contemporary policy of donor/recipient anonymity, a policy that facilitates the discursive construction of organs as discrete members of an undifferentiated class. The second part of this paper addresses the ways in which contemporary transplant institutions deploy discourses that encourage potential organ recipients to think about organs in this fashion.

With regard to the care of potential organ recipients, transplant institutions are interested in simultaneously downplaying the existence of organ donors (to negate the psychological distress believed to be associated with ruminating about one’s donor) and stressing the special nature of transplantable organs (to maximize compliance with post-operative medical advice). As a result, transplant discourse stresses the rarity and special nature of transplantable organs without ever mentioning the ultimate reason why organs are rare. An analysis of qualitative interviews with solid organ transplant recipients illustrates how they take up aspects of the institutional discourse to which they are exposed, coming to think of organs as disembodied while at the same time knowing very where transplantable organs ultimately come from.

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