The government hopes a powerful movie will help change minds in some communities whose cultural barriers have slowed down acceptance of organ donation.
Lisa Zilberpriver

22 Feb 2012 - 6:39 PM  UPDATED 26 Aug 2013 - 9:20 AM

Leaders from most religions in Australia have said there's no problem with organ donation, but the message is yet to reach many of their followers.

'The Last Race' - produced by Anita Belgiorno-Nettis, who won an Australian Film Industry award for The Black Balloon - tells the story of a dilemma faced by hundreds of Australian families each year.

Around 3,000 people die in Australia each week, but only six will donate their organs to save others.

One donor can save up to ten lives.

There are three main misconceptions that cause people to refuse to become organ donors, according to Yael Cass, the CEO of the Organ and Tissue Authority

“One of them is that they may be disfigured, the second is that they may be treated differently by the doctors and nurses in terms of end of life care and the third is basically that they're not a potential donor. Each of those are wrong,“ she says.

Watch the full interview with Yael Cass

Around the world, organ donation laws fall into two main categories - opt in, or out.

In Spain, which has the highest rate of donation in the world, everyone is automatically an organ donor unless they specifically opt out.

In Israel, a recent change in legislation means that anyone who opts out is put on the bottom of the list if they need to receive an organ.

The government says Australia doesn't need an opt out system.

Parliamentary Secretary for Health and Ageing, Catherine King MP, says: “What we actually know is that the method the model of consent whether it's opt in or opt out is not what makes the difference in lifting your organ and tissue donation rates. What actually makes the difference is having good qualified staff in hospitals who are able to request from families.

“What we're seeing at the moment is that we're getting much better at requesting, we're getting much better at dealing with families in these awful situations, but we're not seeing the consent rates go up,” she says.

Watch the full interview with Parliamentary Secretary Catherine King, including government plans to bring its message to indigenous and non-English speaking communities.


Experts say it's a myth that families overturn victims' wishes, and that Spain's success isn't to do with legislation.

The DonateLife campaign was launched in 2010, and government figures show a 30 per cent increase in donors since then.

The government says it has seen a huge rise in organ donation rates since implementing this initiative. It is hoping to have 'The Last Race' subtitled in numerous languages to spread awareness among Australians from non-English speaking backgrounds.

On the street, views are mixed.

“I personally wouldn't donate mine, because just as I came whole into the world I want to go whole to my grave. I don't want them to open up my body. I want to go whole," says Josepina Maddock, from Ecuador.

"In my opinion, if we've passed away, we should give our organs to others because we can help enrich other people's lives. When we've died and gone, our organs don't have any value for us anymore. It's just dust," says Vietnamese Tam Anh Tran.

Cabramatta GP Dr Sang Giang Phan says many of his patients would agree to donate but they believe their religion prohibits it.

He's teamed up with a local M-P to spread the word among Vietnamese and Chinese Buddhists in the predominantly Asian suburb of Sydney.

"I'm trying to change the lives of the Vietnamese and the Chinese through the culture," Dr Sang says.

“If we try to do organ we save not only one person but it's nine and 10 person (sic).”

Dr Sang uses examples from the story of Prince Siddartha (Buddha) to explain to his patients that the religion does not prohibit organ donation - in fact, it encourages it.

"Siddartha gave part of his leg muscle to a tigress so that she could feed her young," he says.

"That is the same as donating an organ."

See the full interview with Dr Sang, including his explanation of principles from Confucius and Buddha that support organ donation.

Dr Sang Giang Phan has written two books that he says encourage organ donation, and has received a Lifetime Achievement award for his work in health.

Last year, Australia reached its highest organ donation rate of 337 donors and 1001 transplant recipients.

With more discussion in the community, it's hoped that the number of people who consent to be organ donors will be much higher when Donate Life week rolls around next year.

Watch this story on YouTube:


'The Last Race' - commissioned by the government - was directed by Jeremy Cumpston, who is a doctor himself. Other cast and crew members said they were also drawn to the project by their personal connections to organ donation stories.

Its producer, Anita Belgiorno-Nettis chose to be involved with the project due to her own experience with the question of organ donation after the death of her brother, 10 years ago.

Anita Belgiorno-Nettis talks about her reasons for teaming up with the government to raise awareness about organ donation.


Former first-grade rugby league player Joe Thomas was faced with the threat that his mother's wishes to donate her organs would be overturned if there were any objections from his siblings.

Watch: Joe Thomas remembers his family's toughest decision

Johnny Emery, who plays the central character, also said the film resonated with him. He lost three close family members over a short period of time, one of whom could have been saved by a bone marrow transplant for which a donor could not be found in time.

Director Jeremy Cumpston - who is a doctor himself - advocates a move to an opt-out system if the reform agenda doesn't lift rates dramatically, and is also enthusiastic about Israel's system of reciprocity.

Watch the full interview with Dr Jeremy Cumpston


Serbian Orthodox priest Father Branko Bosancic said that contrary to popular belief, his church has no objection to organ donation, but the issue of when to delcare brain death overrode that position in some cases.

"For all believers (not just Orthodox, or Serbian Orthodox) the inviolable values are freedom and dignity of a human being (a person) and sanctity of life as an irrevocable gift of God's love," he told SBS in an email.

"From the theological point of view there still exists a problem of the definition of the brain death and undertaking of an additional theological analysis is very much required," he wrote.

"At this point our Church did not give a definite answer for this type of organ donations (taking the organs from the patient who has suffered brain death). Nevertheless, an artificial, mechanical prolonging of functioning only certain organs (brain or lungs) could not be called a benevolence in it's full meaning of the term," he added.

Father Bosancic said he would be encouraging Serbian Australians to become organ donors, but only under certain conditions.

There was little to no discussion of the topic in his community, he said, adding that in-language information could change that.

"Not at any type of a public meeting have I discussed the matter in the Australian Serbian Community. Younger people would know more about it but I think that most people aren't really aware of what organ donation is," he said.

"I have not seen anything in the Serbian language and I strongly believe that it would make a difference."

Father Bosancic's views on donation were echoed by the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Sydney.


Parliamentary Secretary Catherine King says the current reform agenda - which came off the back of a $150 million funding boost in 2010 - has already had a positive effect, but consent rates have not risen enough.

The government is probing ways to reach communities that have lower consent rates - including several programs targeting indigenous people, she adds.


The main advocates for an opt-out legislation were lawyers, according to transplant surgeon Dr Peter Saul of John Hunter Hospital in Newcastle.

"Legal minds look for legal solutions," Dr Saul told SBS.

"But those of us on the front line know it's a myth that a family might overturn the wishes of the deceased, so the opt-in system works fine," he said.


Actor Masa Yamaguchi talks about what he learned playing the role of a doctor trying to save a young girl's life in The Last Race.