Organ trade cartoon by Dario Castillejos
The case for allowing free organ trade seems a no-brainer. Many countries, including the U.S., now forbid the sale and purchase of most organs, and, as a consequence, sick people die because of organ shortages, and poor people stay poor because they can’t “monetize” their organs. Poor people suffer a “double injustice”:
[We say] to a poor person: “You can’t have what most other people have and we are not going to let you do what you want to have those things”. (source, source)
However, when organs are freely tradable, many extremely poor people, especially those struggling to survive, will be tempted and even forced to sells parts of their bodies. Moreover, the rich will be able to benefit disproportionately from the market because prices will be high, given that demand will outstrip supply in an ageing society. The most obvious means to balance supply and demand, and to force down prices and allow the less than wealthy patients to participate in and benefit from the market, is to create a global market without trade restrictions, an organ-GATT if you want. This will bring in the masses of poor people from Africa and Asia, pushing up supply of organs and hence bringing down prices. This will supposedly benefit both the less than wealthy patients and the very poor donors. The latter will benefit even with prices for organs falling because of increased supply, because they start at extremely low levels of income. Even the sale of a cheap kidney can mean years of income for them.
The problem with this global market is that organ extraction will take place in sub-optimal medical conditions, creating risks for donors (if you can still call them that), also in the case of renewable tissue donation. Paradoxically, the poor are driven to risk their lives in the process of saving their lives. Even in the best healthcare systems in the world, organ extraction is often very risky. In the U.S., the extraction of a section of the liver, for example, carries a risk to the donor’s life of almost 1 percent (source). That’s not negligible. I doubt anyone would cross a street if that were the odds of getting hit by a car.
I’m convinced that an opt-out regulation for cadaveric donors (meaning that everyone’s a donor after death unless an explicit opt-out), combined with non-financial encouragement of voluntary pre-death donation, is the best way to solve the organ shortage problem. A free organ market will obviously also solve the organ shortage problem, but will create new problems instead.
Renewable and non-renewable organs
The distinction between renewable tissue such as bone marrow, and non-renewable organs such as kidneys, eyes, etc. is a relevant one. If the donation of renewable tissue can take place in medically safe conditions, I can’t see a problem with being allowed to trade, on the condition that poor patients have the same opportunity and power to buy as rich ones (and that’s a pretty big “if”). The needs of the sick or disabled who risk dying or suffering because of a lack of available organ, clearly outweigh any remaining concerns.
One of those remaining concerns is the problem of the commodification of the body. Organ trade is obviously commodification, and commodification is dehumanization. I don’t want to imply that organ trade liberalization necessarily results in “organ farms”, dystopian places where people are “cultivated” solely for the harvesting of their organs – although the Chinese criminal justice and capital punishment system for instance comes awfully close. (I sometimes wonder if deterrent and punishment is the real goal of executions in China). But people can commodify and dehumanize themselves.
The logic of economics tends to overtake all other domains of life, even those where it doesn’t belong and can do serious harm. Why is it so evident to so many that body parts are something that it supposed to be tradable? Even the most outspoken proponents of organ trade draw the line somewhere: they won’t allow people to sell parts of their brains, I guess, or their children and wives, or the parts of aborted fetuses (perhaps fetuses specially conceived and “harvested” for their parts), not even if this would fill a great social need. And yet they accept as natural that non-vital body parts should be tradable and seem to forget that irreplaceable body parts form our body and that we can hardly exist without our body. If we allow total freedom of organ trade, we will have to accept the case in which a poor father decides to sell off every single one of his organs for the survival of his family. After all, he is the master of his own body, he has a right to self-determination, and the government has no right to limit what masters of their own bodies should be allowed to do with it. If you don’t accept the legitimacy of this extreme case, you accept limitations on the freedom to trade organs. Since most opponents of organ trade also accept certain types of trade – e.g. renewable organs such as bone marrow and skin – the disagreement isn’t a principled one but one about degree.
Underlying the argument in favor of organ trade is the fiction of a market populated by free, equal and self-determining individuals who make free and rational economic decisions and agreements on what to sell and buy, free from government interference. The reality is of course that organ trade isn’t an expression of self-determination or autonomy but rather of the absence of it. And that organ trade, just like a lot of other trade, is radically asymmetrical: some are forced to sell in order to survive, especially if the price and hence the reward is very high, as it will be relatively speaking for the poor. And others will sell without rationally examining the benefits for or risks to their interests (absence of informed consent). It’s beyond my powers of comprehension that all this can be denied:
It’s true that I don’t find any of the arguments about the coercive effects of money on peoples’ decisions particularly compelling. Megan McArdle (source)
Any potential paid organ donor is always free to decline the transaction, and is left no worse off than before. What next, will you tell me that I “coerced” Apple into sending me a Macbook? (source)
This seems to me to be more correct, or at least less outrageous:
Talk of individual rights and autonomy is hollow if those with no options must “choose” to sell their organs to purchase life’s basic necessities. … Choice requires information, options and some degree of freedom. (source)
transplanting of teeth
Free trade except for the poor?
Of course, some would say: if someone is forced by poverty to sell her organs, would you stop her and make her worse off by imposing legal restrictions on her autonomy and “reducing her resources”? That’s again the myth that markets always make things better. What if she does get some money, has a better life in the short run, but gets sick because of the operation (or do we also assume the myth of perfect healthcare for the world’s poor?) or because of the lack of an organ? Who would make her worse off? The one allowing her to sell, or the one stopping her? And anyway, there are better ways to protect the poor than to allow them to harvest their organs.
So, if we’re afraid that free organ trade might be exploitative for the poor, why not allow free trade but exclude the poor from selling? Because the poor will be, in general, the only ones tempted to sell. A wealthy person has no incentive to sell organs. Hence a free trade system restricted in this way will not solve the shortage problem, the main concern of proponents of free trade.
I’ve stated before that government interference can promote rather than restrict freedom. In the case of organ trade and donation, two specific types of interference can help:
- Restricting the freedom to trade non-renewable organs, as well as renewable organs in circumstances in which extraction poses a health risk to donors, will protect the freedom of the poor. Not their freedom to sell organs obviously – which isn’t freedom for them anyway but compulsion – but the freedom to live a healthy live.
- Imposing default cadaveric donation with an opt-out clause will protect the freedom to live a healthy live of patients in need of replacement organs. Of course, if it’s the case that for some organs cadaveric donation isn’t possible medically, I’m willing to accept an exception.
Trade restricted to post-mortem trade?
How about allowing people to sell their organs after death? This would evidently remove the health risks for donors. It could be considered a kind of life insurance for the deceased’s family. That would indeed remove all the concerns from the donor side. (The counter-argument that such a system would encourage families to kill their members for the “insurance money” seems a bit weak, and just as weak as the similar counter-argument against generalized organ trade liberalization, namely that people would murder in order to sell organs; I guess they already do).
Photo by Jonathan Cook
But assume that we would allow free post-mortem trade: what would happen with the organs? They would be sold of course, but to whom? The most wealthy first, and hence we still have our problem on the beneficiary side: wealth yields better health. Of course, that’s already the case in healthcare in general: rich people also have better dental care etc. But do we want to add to the existing injustice by allowing wealth to determine who gets an organ?
If we allow limited organ trade of deceased’s organs, we’ll have to do something on the beneficiary side in order to neutralize the effects of wealth. A lottery system could be an option. Or subsidies for the poor, or price caps etc.
More on organ trade here and here. More posts in this series are here.