Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

Organ Failures

In a recent speech, Pope Benedict addressed the subject of organ donation:

If we turn our gaze to the entire world, it is easy to confirm the numerous and complex cases in which, thanks to the technique of organ transplantation, many people have overcome extremely grave illnesses, and in them the joy of life has been restored. This would never have happened if the commitment of the doctors and the competence of the researchers had not been able to count upon the generosity and altruism of those who have donated organs.

Unfortunately, the problem of the lack of available vital organs is not a theoretical one, but a considerably practical one; one can see this in the long waiting list of those whose only hope for survival is linked to the small number of non-useful donations.

Regarding the technique of organ transplants, this means that one can only donate if this act doesn’t put one’s own health and identity in serious danger, and if it is done for a valid moral and proportionate reason. Any reasons for the buying and selling of organs, or the adoption of utilitarian and discriminatory criteria, would clash in such a way with the meaning of gift that they would be invalidated, qualifying them as illicit moral acts. Abuses in transplants and organ trafficking, which frequently affect innocent persons, such as children, must find the scientific and medical community united in a joint refusal. They should be decidedly condemned as abominable.

In the above passage, the Pope notes two problems with the current situation regarding organ donation: 1) there aren’t enough willing donors to meet the need for transplants, and 2) there is a black market in organ trafficking, which often harms involves innocent persons, including children.

Both of these problems could be easily solved, at least in some cases, if one were to allow payment in exchange for of donation. Kidney transplants, for example, can be done by a living donor. Most people are born with two Kidneys. Only one, however, is needed for survival, and unlike someone who only has one lung or one eye, the loss of a kidney does not result in the loss of any functionality (and since most kidney ailments will affect both kidneys simultaneously, donating a kidney does not mean subjecting yourself to greater health risks other than those typically associated with surgery). There are currently more than 60,000 people in America on a waiting list for a kidney, and thousands die waiting every year (many from suicide). Some are so desperate that they seek organs abroad or on the black market, where donors are often not willing. Allowing payment for donation would increase the supply of willing donors, saving literally thousands of lives a year, and would dry up demand for black market kidneys, eliminating abuses much in the same way that the end of alcohol prohibition put an end to the violence associated with the booze business.

Granted, the Pope does say that the buying and selling of organs are “illicit moral acts.” But not every immoral act need be illegal. As St. Thomas says, attempts to suppress a particular evil sometimes lead to outbreaks of yet greater evils, and where this is so the just statesman will not attempt to suppress it, but will focus his energies elsewhere. Attempts to prohibit the buying and selling of kidneys have led directly to a shortage of willing donors, thousands of deaths each year, and a black market in which unwilling donors, often including children, have their organs forcibly removed. A prohibition on the sale of kidneys, therefore, would seem to fall within the realm of legal toleration advocated by St. Thomas.

No doubt an unregulated market in kidneys is not politically feasible. But this is no reason to assume that some compromise on the issue couldn’t be reached. Many people, for example, seem to be open to compensating donors for some of the costs associated with donation (e.g. travel and medical expenses, lost income due to time away from work, etc.), even if the find compensation for other costs (e.g. the risks associated with surgery or the ordinary fear of going under the knife) morally repulsive. I don’t happen to see the difference myself, but many do and there may be a wisdom of repugnance argument here. All donations could still be done through the Organ Procurement and Transplantation Network, and could include whatever safeguards are deemed necessary to prevent the sorts of abuse and potential for exploitation that make people wary of a “pure” kidney market.

(HT: ZippyCatholic)

UPDATE: It looks like Singapore will soon be allowing compensation for kidney donation along the lines of my proposal. Previously only Iran allowed such payments.

(HT: Marginal Revolution)


November 17, 2008 - Posted by | Catholicism, Charity, Economics, Health Care, Morality


  1. Some states allow living donors to take a tax exemption for costs related to organ donation (see the ‘legal’ tab at for more info). Should it be a country-wide mandate? Sure.

    A simple way to increase donor organs is to implement a federal opt-out policy instead of the current opt-in policy favored by most states. Opt-out means you are assumed to be an organ donor unless you specify otherwise; some states have instituted this already, to great results.

    As for ‘payment’ for organs:

    Who would determine how much this payment would be, and where would the money come from? As a conservative/libertarian (acording to your bio), I’m sure you’re not suggesting the government pick up that tab. So then who? The insurance companies? Not everyone in this country has health insurance, or their ‘insurance’ is paid for by our taxes.

    Which brings me to my next point. The moment the idea of ‘payment’ for organs is introduced, two things occur: 1. organs go the wealthy, condemning those with lower SES to a slow and a painful death and 2. people will be ‘manipulated’ into giving up an organ they otherwise would not donate. Desperate people engage in behaviors they otherwise wouldn’t, and considering the current state of the economy, it wouldn’t take much fiscal incentive to motivate someone to agree to a major surgery they otherwise would reject.

    Yes, the organ shortage in this country is a huge problem, but there are other solutions, if we are willing to devote the time and energy to them. I appreciate the fact you’ve given thought and voice to this issue, and encouraged the dialogue that is so badly needed.

    BTW, currently over 75,000 in the U.S. are waiting for a kidney. As of late September, over 100,000 in this country are in need of some organ overall. Just sayin’ 🙂

    Comment by livingdonor101 | November 17, 2008 | Reply

  2. I look at it this way. . . if “they” expect organs to be donated, then the surgery should also be required by law to be donated. If “they” want to charge obscene amounts of money for transplant surgery, then the ‘donor’ should be compensated accordingly (or the ‘donors’ estate)
    My dmv organ donor card has said, since the 80’s, No organs to be donated, but some may be for sale.
    I’ll be damned if I am going to donate, for free, body parts so some criminal jackoff can make a fortune selling them to people who are in desperate need.

    What a bunch of morons.

    Comment by Reverend Draco | November 20, 2008 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: