Academics have discussed the ethics of selling organs for several decades. Yet the idea is now gaining traction in the popular media.
The Washington Post published an opinion piece earlier this month defending the introduction of a regulated organ market in the United States.
Washington Post columnist Megan McArdle argued that the “utilitarian calculus” in favour of an organ market “seems overwhelming”:
“Of 126,000 people diagnosed annually with end-stage renal disease, only 20,000 will eventually receive a donated kidney…the government could compensate donors handsomely while still saving money. And because kidney failure disproportionately affects the poor, they would be better off, not worse off”.
McArdle acknowledged the risk exploitation of vulnerable populations, yet suggested that “[the] risk still seems preferable to leaving so many desperate dialysis patients dependent on the kindness of strangers”.
Others argue that it would be in the government’s financial interest to establish an organ market. In a letter to the Washington Post in December, Ike Brannon of the Organ Reform Group and Network argued that “paying $50,000 to a donor would not only provide a healthy, viable kidney for everyone who needs one but would also save the government more than $100 billion over the next decade [in dialysis costs]”.
Yet not everyone has responded enthusiastically to the idea of a regulated market. University of Pennsylvania medical ethicist Emily Largent noted in a blog post that there is a federal prohibition on the sale of organs. She also said that there needed to be a controlled “real-world test of regulated payments … to show definitively whether this is a viable method of increasing the supply of kidneys for transplantation or not”.
Some ethicists question whether an organ market would provide meaningful choices to persons who are from lower socio-economic backgrounds. Still others have argued that the commercial sale of human body parts would erode altruistic sentiment in society and undermine the gift relationship that is an important characteristic of community life.
At the very least, there is always a possibility that things will go horribly wrong in an organ market. Media around the world reported early this month on the case of a Chinese man who in his teens sold his kidney on an underground market so that he could buy new IPhone and IPad. The operation to harvest his kidney was botched, and the man, now 25, is permanently bedbound.
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