If you were sick and needed
a kidney transplant, you would soon find out that there is
a waiting line—and that there are 70,000 people ahead
of you, 4,000 of whom will die within a year. If you couldn’t
find a willing and compatible donor among your friends and
family, you could try to find a stranger willing to give
you his kidney—but you would not be allowed to pay
him. In fact, the law would not permit you to give him anything
of value in exchange for his kidney. As far as the law is
concerned, no one can profit from donating an organ—even
if that policy costs you your life.
Patients’ attempt to circumvent this deplorable state of
affairs has led to the emergence of “paired” kidney
donations, an arrangement whereby two individuals—who can’t
donate their organs to their loves ones because of medical incompatibility—agree
that each will donate a kidney to a friend or family member of
the other. But this exchange of value for value is precisely
what today’s law forbids. Thus, under pressure to allow
this type of exchange, in December the U.S. House and Senate
passed The Living Kidney Organ Donation Clarification Act, which
amends the National Organ Transplant Act to exempt “paired” donations
of kidneys from prosecution.
But if our politicians’ goal is to eliminate the irrational
policies leading to innocent people’s deaths, they should
legalize not only “paired” exchanges but all voluntary
trades in organs.
If individuals were free to sell one of their kidneys or a piece
of their livers, for example, tens of thousands in the waiting
list might be able to buy the organs they so desperately need.
The decision to sell a kidney or a piece of liver may seem radical,
but it need not be irrational.
According to the New England Journal of Medicine, the risk to
the life of a kidney donor, for instance, is just 0.03 percent—not
negligible, but not overwhelming either. Moreover, kidney donors
usually live normal lives with no reduction of life expectancy.
A person may reasonably decide, after considering all the relevant
facts (including the pain, risk, and inconvenience of surgery),
that selling an organ is actually in his own best interest. A
father, for example, may decide that one of his kidneys is worth
selling to pay for the best medical treatment available for his
Those who object to a free market in organs would deny
this father the right to act on his judgment. Poor people,
they imply, are
incapable of making rational choices and must be protected
from themselves. The fact is, however, that human beings
rich) have the capacity to reason, and should be free to exercise
Of course, the decision to sell an organ is a very serious
one, and should not be taken lightly. That some people
irrational choices, however, is no reason to violate the
rights of everyone. If the law recognizes our right to give
organ, it should also recognize our right to sell an organ.
The objection that people would murder to sell their victims’ organs
should be dismissed as the scaremongering that it is. Indeed,
the financial lure of such difficult-to-execute criminal
action is today far greater than it would be if patients
and openly buy the organs they need.
Opponents of a free market in organs also argue that it would
benefit only those who could afford to pay—not necessarily
those in most desperate need. But the need of some people does
not give our government the right to damage the lives of others,
either by forbidding individuals to sell their organs or by prohibiting
individuals from buying organs to further their lives. Those
who could afford to buy organs would benefit at no one’s
expense but their own. Those unable to pay would still be
able to rely on charity, as they do today. And a free market
enhance the ability of charitable organizations to procure
organs for them.
Ask yourself: if your life depended on getting an organ,
say a kidney or a liver, wouldn’t you be willing to pay for
one? And if you could find a willing seller, shouldn’t
you have the right to buy it from him?
The right to buy an organ is part of your right to life.
The right to life is the right to take all actions a rational
requires to sustain and enhance his life. Your right to life
becomes meaningless when the law forbids you to buy an organ
that would preserve your life.
If the government upheld the rights of potential buyers and
sellers of organs, many of the tens of thousands of people
for organs would be spared hideous suffering and an early
death. How many?
Let’s find out.