LONDON (Reuters Life!) - Britons are being asked if people should get cash incentives to donate eggs and sperm, and whether the funeral expenses of organ donors should be paid in a bid to address a severe shortage in supply.
Britain has one of the lowest rates of organ donation, at just 13 per million of population compared with 35 per million in Spain where a "presumed consent" system operates, which effectively make everyone a potential donor unless they choose to opt out.
The UK medical ethics think-tank the Nuffield Council on Bioethics has launched a public consultation to look at whether people think it is right that donors should receive payments or other incentives to meet a growing demand.
Currently paying people to donate most organs, beyond offering modest expenses, is currently illegal in Britain but a shortage has forced many to seek treatment overseas.
About 8,000 people need an organ transplant in Britain each year and hundreds die waiting for a suitable donor.
Professor Marilyn Strathern, chairman of the Council's inquiry into the issue, said: "We could try to increase the number of organ donors by providing stronger incentives, such as cash, paying funeral costs or priority for an organ in future, but would this be ethical?"
The Council said incentives could be non-financial, such as offering letters of thanks, T-shirts, mugs or vouchers, or allowing future donors to jump the queue for transplants should they later need one.
"We also need to think about the morality of pressing people to donate their bodily material," Strathern said.
"Offering payment or other incentives may encourage people to take risks or go against their beliefs in a way they would not have otherwise done."
In 2008, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he would not rule out bringing in a "presumed consent" scheme for organ donation.
However the Organ Donation Taskforce said that evidence from across the world indicated that such a scheme would not improve donation rates.
In January, a study by fertility experts found that a drastic lack of sperm donors meant women wanting babies were resorting to importing semen from abroad or using do-it-yourself insemination kits bought on the internet.
A change in the law in 2005 which removed donors' right to anonymity has led to a sharp fall in the number of donations.
Data from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority (HFEA) showed the number of patients receiving donor sperm fell from almost 9,000 in 1992 to about 2,000 in 2007.
The Council's consultation will run for three months and it will publish its findings toward the end of 2011.
Editing by Steve Addison