National

Inmate sisters' freedom raises ethical issues

JACKSON, Miss. —A debate is unfolding over an unusual offer from Mississippi's governor: He will free two sisters imprisoned for an armed robbery that netted $11, but one woman's release requires her to donate one of her kidneys to the other.

The condition is alarming some experts, who have raised legal and ethical questions. Among them: If it turns out the sisters aren't a good tissue match, does that mean the healthy one goes back to jail?

Gov. Haley Barbour's decision to suspend the life sentences of Jamie and Gladys Scott was applauded by civil rights organizations and the women's attorney, who have long said the sentences were too harsh for the crime.

The sisters are black, and their case has been a cause celebre in the state's African-American community.

The Scotts were convicted in 1994 of leading two men into an ambush in central Mississippi the year before. Three teenagers hit each man in the head with a shotgun and took their wallets — making off with only $11, the sisters' attorney said.

After 16 years in prison, Jamie Scott, 36, is on daily dialysis, which officials say costs the state about $200,000 a year.

Barbour agreed to release her because of her medical condition, but 38-year-old Gladys Scott's release order says one of the conditions she must meet is to donate the kidney within one year.

The idea to donate the kidney was Gladys Scott's and she volunteered to do it in her petition for early release.

National NAACP president and CEO Benjamin Todd Jealous thanked Barbour on Thursday after meeting him at the state capital in Jackson, calling his decision "a shining example" of the way a governor should use the power of clemency.

Others aren't so sure.

Arthur Caplan, the director of the Center for Bioethics at the University of Pennsylvania, has studied transplants and their legal and ethical ramifications for about 25 years. He said he's never heard of anything like this.

Even though Gladys Scott proposed the idea in her petition for an early release and volunteered to donate the organ, Caplan said, it is against the law to buy and sell organs or to force people to give one up.

So what happens if she decides, minutes from surgery, to back off the donation?

"My understanding is that she's committed to doing this. This is something that she came up with," said Barbour's spokesman, Dan Turner. "This is not an idea the governor's office brokered. It's not a quid pro quo."

If they don't match, or if she backs out, will she be heading back to prison?

"All of the 'What if' questions are, at this point, purely hypothetical," Barbour said in a statement from his office late Thursday. "We'll deal with those situations if they actually happen."

  Comments