Brooklyn —

Politics has infiltrated unlikely New York City locales this election cycle, with novel voter registration efforts popping up at sites ranging from food trucks to hospitals.

Two days before New York’s Oct. 14 voter registration deadline, volunteers staked out the main entrance to Coney Island Hospital stopping passers-by with two entreaties – register to vote and, while you’re at it, register to become an organ donor at death.

Hospital visitors were a lot more enthusiastic about voting than donating their organs.

Abida Sattar, Rosanne DeGennaro and Dr. Tim Law, all members of the Coney Island Hospital Community Advisory Board, said they have registered a number of southern Brooklynites over the past seven months, but most skipped the organ donor enrollment section, which was added to New York’s voter registration forms in 2009.

The reluctance is nothing new. Although the opportunity to register as an organ donor has long been available on New York driver registration forms, just 26 percent of New York adults have registered as donors, according to Donate Life America’s 2016 Donor Designation Report Card. That’s the second-lowest rate of all U.S. states and territories and far below the national average of 50 percent.

“Nobody registered for organ donations,” Sattar reported matter-of-factly after working four shifts leading up to the registration deadline. DeGennaro noted the volunteers’ job was simply to ask about organ donation, not to pressure anyone to sign up.

Culture Clashes

In southern Brooklyn, culture and religion play a supporting role in the opposition by some New Yorkers to organ donation. Coney Island Hospital serves not only the neighborhood from which it takes its name, but also parts of Bensonhurst, Gravesend, Bath Beach, Brighton Beach and Sheepshead Bay – areas with thriving Chinese, Russian, Ukrainian, Pakistani and Mexican immigrant populations, among others.

Sattar is Pakistani and lives in Brighton Beach. She said that Muslims disagree as to whether Islam permits organ donation, which could explain some Pakistanis’ reluctance to sign up.

Law, chief executive adviser at the Chinese American Social Services Center in Bensonhurst, estimated that 95 percent of elderly Chinese refused to sign up as organ donors. “If you’re missing any piece of the body, heaven will not take you,” he said many believed. But younger Chinese people who have been educated in the U.S. are more willing to become organ donors, he added.

The combined voter and organ donor registration drive at Coney Island Hospital and other New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation facilities were part of a statewide initiative to boost the number of organ donors. The number of new donors who signed up through voter registration increased dramatically between 2010 and 2012, according to the New York Alliance for Donation, a consortium of organ, eye and tissue recovery organizations in New York State. But the total of new enrollees statewide didn’t budge, which led the alliance to conclude that fewer New Yorkers are registering as organ donors through the Department of Motor Vehicles.

Meanwhile, New York has the third-highest demand for organs in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. As of Oct. 28, New Yorkers are waiting for 8,095 kidneys, 1,109 livers, 346 hearts, 164 pancreases, 60 lungs and 8 intestines.

Upstate and western counties typically have higher organ donor registration rates than those in New York City, data compiled in March 2016 by Donate Life America showed.

Sattar, DeGennaro and Law registered about five voters during the first hour of their shift two days before registration closed, but not many agreed to become an organ donor.

One woman who registered with two young children in tow and who declined to give her name, gave a simple, emphatic answer when asked if she was becoming an organ donor: “No.”


What States Have the Most and Least Organ Donors?   (Includes District of Columbia and Puerto Rico)

Top 5 (by percentage of adults registered):

  1. Montana – 89%
  2. Alaska – 86%
  3. Washington – 85%
  4. Utah – 76%
  5. Oregon – 75%

Bottom 5 (by percentage of adults registered):

  1. West Virginia – 39%
  2. New Jersey – 37%
  3. Mississippi – 32%
  4. New York – 26%
  5. Puerto Rico – 19%

Source: Donate Life America’s 2016 Donor Designation Report Card