Should Organ-Selling Be Legal

October 27th, 2009 by Kathy McManus

Women sell their eggs, some argue. Why not their kidneys?

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The Responsibility Project

News reports that Steve Jobs received a liver transplant in Tennessee included widespread speculation that the Apple CEO had—as The Boston Globe put it— “somehow gamed the organ donation system in order to jump to the head of the waiting list.” 

While no report offered any proof that Jobs had acted improperly, the old question about access prompted a new question about altruism: with too-few organs available for too many patients, is it time to pay organ donors for selling their valuable body parts legally on the open market? 

In the U.S., the sale of transplant organs is illegal, meaning that an organ needed to save a life can only be used if it was donated for free. On the thriving organ black market however, a liver costs $10,000, and a kidney—the most sought-after organ—goes for $30,000. Proponents of organ-selling say that with 80,000 Americans on kidney waiting lists alone, and 13 dying each day, it’s time to stop expecting donors to act solely for altruistic reasons. 

“The surgeon who performed Jobs’s liver transplant, the hepatologist who diagnosed him, the anesthesiologist who managed his pain, the nurse…the pharmacy…even the driver who brought him to the hospital…were paid,” noted a Globe editorial. “Only the organ donor (or the donor’s family, if the liver came from a cadaver) could receive nothing except the satisfaction that comes from performing an act of kindness.” 

“Women Sell Their Eggs, So Why Not a Kidney?” asked the headline of a news story that listed proposed organ donor incentives, including health and life insurance, tax credits, and contributions to the donor’s charity of choice. 

“I’m on the fence, I have to say. I’m really torn about this,” said a bioethics professor who worries that even a legal organ-selling system might increase exploitation since most donors come from desperately poor countries and may be choosing between keeping their kidneys or feeding their families. 

But a Yale psychiatrist who received a donated kidney several years ago, summed up by saying “we don’t think firemen are any less heroic because they are paid to save us.” 

Tell us what you think: Should organ donors become organ sellers? What effect would legal organ selling have on altruism and doing the right thing? Is the satisfaction that comes from doing the right thing ever “payment” enough?