human rights facts, poverty

Human Rights Facts (35): The Recession and Organ Trade

organ trade

(source, from Flickr user Faraz_Designer)

One more way in which the recession affects human rights. From William Saletan:

Will the global recession push more people to sell their organs? Apparently, the answer is yes. … You don’t normally think of selling your body’s parts or products. But bad times can make you think hard. One reason you might not have thought of selling something from your body is that the idea felt unnatural or somehow made you uncomfortable. But for $5,000, with bills to pay and no other income prospects, you decide you can get over those feelings.

In an older post I mentioned some of the negative effects of the current economic recession on human rights. One of the human rights likely to be effected is the right not to suffer poverty. The recession will cause an increase in poverty (see here and here), and people will be forced to use extreme tactics to counter this problem, especially if they can’t benefit from a social safety net. Not only can they decide to sell their organs (this would still be called a “donation”); they may also be tempted to participate in risky medical tests, rent their skin for commercial tattoo’s, sell their body for sex, become a surrogate mother  etc.

What to do about it? Again William Saletan:

What’s driving the market is scarcity. Americans, Britons, Israelis, Japanese, and South Koreans are going abroad for organs mostly because too few of their countrymen have agreed to donate organs when they die. Some have religious objections. Others are squeamish. Many figure that if they don’t supply the organs, somebody else will.

They’re right. Somebody else will supply the organs. But that somebody won’t be a corpse. He’ll be a fisherman or an out-of-work laborer who needs cash and can’t find another way to get it. The middlemen will open him up, take his kidney, pay him a fraction of the proceeds, and abandon him, because follow-up care is just another expense. If he recovers well enough to keep working, he’ll be lucky.

The surest way to stop him from selling his kidney is to make it worthless, by flooding the market with free organs. If you haven’t filled out a donor card, do it now. Because if the dying can’t get organs from the dead, they’ll buy them from the living.

More on the organ trade here and here. And there’s even a poem about it here.


9 thoughts on “Human Rights Facts (35): The Recession and Organ Trade

  1. Dr. Spagnoli, which is worse: the fact that in 2000, 35,000 people could not receive the kidney transplants they needed and that there’s an average of a four year waiting time (just to meet the necessary supply) or that people might sell their organs in a safe and beneficial manner? Can you really justify tens of thousands of preventable deaths because of your political beliefs? Is the right to buy organs not one’s right to life?

    In 1971, Richard Titmuss wrote an influential book titled The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy. In it, he argued that blood should not be able to be sold for transfusion. Never mind the fact that America was getting more blood, where its purchase was legal, than Britain where it wasn’t–he focused on the quality. However, new technological improvements have improved screening. Not only does the legalized purchase of blood yield more blood, but also safe blood. Today, the transfusion of blood saves countless lives. The same would be true of organs.

    Moreover, can you answer why the poor would be better off by not allowing them to sell their organs? How does that benefit the poor? Gary Becker, a Nobel Prize winning economist asks, “If so desired, a quota could be placed on the fraction of organs that could be supplied by persons with incomes below a certain level, but would that improve the welfare of poor persons?” Is it implied that poor people cannot make rational decisions, and they must be protected from themselves? Why should poor people not have the free right to reason and the right to their own body?

    • Your basic premise is false: nobody is “allowing” or “not allowing” the poor to sell their organs, or to make rational decisions about their own lives. They have no choice. They are forced to dehumanize and commodify themselves. No talk about self-determination is relevant here. In fact, it’s orwellian.

      If you really care about the poor, you’ll look for other measures and policies to help them (there are plenty, including empowerment), and you would not add insult to injury, by claiming that their forced commodification is somehow an expression of their “right to their own body”.

      As regards the legitimate interests of people waiting for organs: I’m deeply shocked by your statement that I somehow put my political beliefs about organ trade above their interests. You know as well as me that there’s a single and simple solution to the problem of organ shortage: an opt-out system in which everyone is by default a donor after death, unless there an explicit before-death opt out. That would flood the “market” with free organs, solving at once the problems of patients and cutting the legs from under the hidious organ trade which you defend. (By the way, invoking “authority arguments” isn’t very impressive).

      Lumping together blood donations and organ donations isn’t very fair either. Organ donations require surgery, in often horrendous circumstances, with no healthcare prior or post-operation. Once the middle-man takes the organ, he just dumps the “patient”.

      So, I angrily reject your comments.

    • Benjamin, just a small caveat: my previous comment came over a bit too emotional I think. I generally appreciate your comments. I usually don’t agree with you, but at least you make a point and you think about things. That’s not always the case with the people commenting here.

  2. Dr. Spagnoli, I appreciate your response but I beg to differ with you.

    Not only is opt-out immoral if the person is unaware of the system, it also fails to adequately meet demand. It might be true that opt-out increases organ supply (though the literature disagrees), it is agreed that it still will not come close to meeting the demand. (There are, in fact, countries that do have an opt-out system that have patient queues.) See, for example, Sebastien R. Gay’s “The Impact of Default Rules on Economic Behavior with Primary Attention to Organ Donations.”

    The fact of the matter is that altruism is not sufficient. The simple reason is that people are forbidden from selling their organs. Sure, I would be very happy if altruism produced enough organs to be donated, but it doesn’t. The solution, therefore, is to allow the sale and purchase of organs.

    This might seem unsettling to you; but, again, which is worse: that tens of thousands of people in the U.S. alone cannot receive the organs they need and thousands more die, or that people might sell their organs in a safe and beneficial manner on a market?

    As you point out in your other post, people are forced to use the black market, which exists only as a poor-quality substitute that endangers the lives of those involved. A more acceptable approach is to allow an open and safe market that will be able to save many lives.

    As Becker, who has studied this topic, points out, it also far from certain that only poor people will sell their organs. Many poor people would, in fact, be turned away because of unacceptable organs due to drug use or disease. On the other hand, middle class people would sell their organs after they died if the money went to their family. Is that truly immoral? I do not think so, especially when we consider what is at stake.

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