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Michigan hopes reforms pump life into lagging state organ donor registry

doctor and patient hands holding red heart
The ease of renewing licenses online has come with a cost: The growth in the state’s organ donor registry is slowing, prompting lawmakers to pass legislation allowing people to indicate they are willing to be donors when they file their taxes. (Shutterstock)
  • The growth of Michigan’s organ donor registry is slowing, and some blame the ease of renewing licenses online
  • Michigan hopes to boost participation by allowing residents to sign up for the registry on tax returns
  • Experts hope the option helps cut some of the racial disparities of organ donation

Renewing driver licenses and registrations online may be convenient, but it come with a cost: Fewer drivers are signing up to become organ donors.

“I love not having to stand in line with the Secretary of State,” said Patrick Wells-O’Brien, vice president of communications at Gift of Life Michigan, which matches organ donors with patients on the waitlist. 

“But that was bad for the registry because that meant a lot fewer opportunities for the public to ask the question.”



In 2021, nearly 300,000 people were added to the registry, but that declined 18 percent in 2022 to 238,000, according to Gift of Life Michigan. Overall, the registry grew from 4.3 million people in 2021 to 4.4 million the following year.

“The organ donor registry in Michigan is still growing, but it's growing much more slowly than it used to and that's really having a negative impact on our ability to save lives,” Wells-O’Brien said. 

Statewide, 56 percent of the state’s adult population is on the donor registry, slightly less than the 58 percent nationwide and far behind states such as Colorado, where nearly 70 percent of the population is registered. 

In hopes of combatting the trend, Michigan recently became the first state to allow residents to join the registry through their annual taxes returns. 

Filers will be asked on their state tax forms if they want to join the registry starting in the 2023 tax year. Volunteers will be mailed a red heart to put on their driver license, which will indicate they are an organ donor.  

The registry lagged because residents only have to go to the Secretary of State’s office every 12 years to take a new photo during the renewal process. 

Gift of Life is also urging lawmakers to introduce legislation that asks people to join the registry when they renew their annual vehicle registrations.

“When people were being prompted less often, we saw the numbers go down, so we think this additional prompting will get those numbers to come back up,” said state Rep. Natalia Price, D-Berkley, who co-sponsored the tax filing bill.

Experts also hope the reforms can ease the racial disparity for organ donors.

About 14 percent of the state’s population is Black, but 30 percent of the people waiting for an organ in Michigan are Black: 725 out of the 2,405 total, according to data from the  Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network

“It is really, really important to educate people in minority communities as well, because many times, when we approach people in the minority communities, their first answer is ‘no,’”  said Aarolyn McCullough, 64, of Oak Park, who had a liver transplant in 2011 after she was diagnosed with cirrhosis.

After she recovered, McCullough began helping transplant recipients and caregivers prepare for the operation.  In 2021, McCullough started a nonprofit  to raise  money to buy a house in Detroit where transplant recipients can recover. 

While it’s common for recipients to receive an organ from a donor of a different ethnicity, a more diverse registry makes it easier for minority communities to find a better match. 

McCullough blamed myths and misconceptions for why Black people may be hesitant to become an organ donor. Some falsely believe they won’t receive life-saving care if they are injured, so their organs could be harvested, she said.

She blamed the mistrust on a history of mistreatment of minorities by medical professionals, including the Tuskegee experiment, a study in which hundreds of Black men were untreated of syphilis, and the case of Henrietta Lacks, a Black woman whose cells were stolen and commercialized to cure other diseases.  


If every adult in Michigan was on the organ donor registry, the needs of the state and maybe even the country would be filled, said Dr. Marwan Abouljoud, director of Henry Ford Hospital Transplant Institute in Detroit. 

“The unfortunate thing is that we ask people at the very lowest point of their life, when they've lost a loved one, to think about organ donation.” 

Between 30 percent and 35 percent of people are asked to donate their loved one’s organs after tragedies, Aboulijoud added. 

In 2022, there were 851 transplants from deceased donors and 144 from living donors, in Michigan.   

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