There Is a Market for Human Organs, Whether You Like It or Not

The buying and selling of human organs was in the news this weekend, via an investigative report in the New York Times. People tend to be moved when they learn about someone donating an organ to someone else who needs it, but they also tend to be disgusted by the notion of a market where people can sell their organs to strangers. Naturally enough, this market consists of high-income patients and low-income donors.

The Times profiles an Israeli woman who bought a kidney from a Costa Rican donor, for a total cost of $175,000. A donor gets about $5,500. The rest goes to middlemen and medical staff. It doesn’t sound like a great deal for the donor, does it?

On the other hand, 4,000 people die waiting for kidneys in the United States alone. The only country where there is no waiting list for kidneys is the Islamic Republic of Iran, which allows donors to sell organs. Another way to clear the market is the Chinese way, which consists of harvesting them from prisoners – often sentenced on grounds unrecognizable as crimes by Westerners, such as practicing the spiritual discipline of Falun Gong.

China’s harvesting of human organs – from often living victims – is described in horrifying detail by Ethan Guttmann in his new book, The Slaughter. Outlawing a legal market of willing buyers and sellers will always result in a black market which will be exploited by gangsters. We also see this in the United States when jurisdictions hike tobacco taxes. The response is an increase in contraband.

A solution is a properly regulated market into which people can sell their organs. It’s best described by Sally Satel, MD.

[Editor’s note: Also see the extensive writings on this topic by economist Alex Tabarrok and other fellows at the Independent Institute.]

John R. Graham is a former Senior Fellow at the Independent Institute.
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