Organ trafficking

I learned the following today:

1. Most sales of body organs involve kidneys.

2. Patients who receive a kidney from a living donor have a much better chance of surviving.

3. In the developing world the going rate for a kidney is between $1000 and $2000.

4. In the Philippines there is essentially a free market in bodily organs. The “grey market” is growing rapidly in many countries.

5. Two different studies suggest that kidney sellers do not benefit in the long run. Most sellers pay off debts with the money, and end up back in debt, their acts of desperation do not succeed. Many end up with long-run health problems, or can no longer perform heavy labor.

From this week’s New York Review of Books (electronic subscription required), “The Organ Market,” by Sheila and David Rothman. The authors are involved with an “organ watch” movement, which seeks to stop organ sales abuses.

My take: I can believe the “behavioral irrationality” argument that most kidney sellers do not benefit very much, if at all. But the Rothman piece never tries to estimate how many lives are saved by the practice. Furthermore, many of the selling “victims” might have performed some other desperate act instead. So the organ selling idea, although repugnant to many people, in my mind remains in the running as a serious policy proposal.

There is a moral hazard problem, namely hospitals and doctors may take kidneys from people when they shouldn’t. Or a hospital or doctor may let a patient die, to harvest the kidneys. Are more lives lost through the moral hazard problem than are saved through the kidney sales? I doubt it. Do the kidney buyers benefit more than the kidney sellers lose? Probably.

Utilitarian calculations are not the only value at stake here, but so far they point toward allowing organ sales. The best argument against is to cite the likelihood of accompanying rights violations, which are real, and claim that such a factor outweighs the utilitarian benefits of the practice.

Addendum: On point number two, the authors write: “patients who receive an organ from a living donor have far better prospects than those who receive an organ from a cadaver.” Co-blogger Alex sends me the following link, which shows a correlation of about ten percentage points more of survival, if you receive an organ from a living donor, the causal relationship may be weaker, given the differing ages of various recipients. Alex wonders if allowing kidney demanders to “buy from the dead” would reduce the problems of sale from the living. This is a good point, but I am not sure it eliminates the basic problem. First, sales from the dead may not displace sales from the living; I cannot determine whether the Philippines (not to mention other locales) restricts sales from the dead but it is not obvious that such differential restrictions exist. Second, many of the buyers are relatively wealthy. If a “live kidney” raises the chance of survival by only a single percentage point, they may still pay for that, which would continue to prop up the market in kidneys from the living. Kidney middlemen may find it easier, and more profitable, to buy from the living for a thousand or two, rather than pursue cadavers, where the quality of the kidney is presumably harder to determine.


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