To Save Lives, Legalize Trade in Organs
By David Holcberg (Providence Journal, November 18, 2005; San Francisco Chronicle, November 22, 2005)
The organ-transplant tragedy at UC Irvine Medical Center, where according to the Los Angeles Times "more than 30 people died awaiting liver transplants . . . as the hospital turned down scores of organs that might have saved them," illustrates the terrible situation faced by those awaiting transplants. These patients are at the mercy of others' decisions, prohibited by law from themselves purchasing the organs they so desperately need.
A record 90,000 individuals are on the U.S. national waiting list for organs. Of the 80,000 waiting for kidneys or livers, about 6,000 will die in the next year. Yet no one will consider the way to save many of these people: legalize trade in human organs.
Let's consider it.
Millions of Americans have exercised their right to give away their organs by signing organ donation cards. But very few made the legal arrangements necessary to ensure that their organs can be harvested after death. Many more would make such arrangements if their families were to be paid for the donated organs. It could work as a type of life insurance and would create a mutually advantageous situation: the deceased's family gets needed money while the transplant patient gets a vital organ.
A few people, on the other hand, may choose to sell an organ during their lifetime. This may seem like a radical idea, but it need not be an irrational one.
According to the Mayo Clinic, the extraction of a section of liver, for example, carries a risk to the donor's life of less than 1 percent--not negligible, but not overwhelming. In the case of a kidney donation, the New England Journal of Medicine reports that the risk is even smaller: just 0.03 percent. Moreover, liver donors can usually count on their liver's ability to regenerate and regain full function; donors of kidneys usually live normal lives with no reduction of life expectancy.
A person may reasonably decide, after considering the relevant facts (including the pain and risk of surgery), that selling an organ is 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 child.
But those who object to a free market in organs would deny this father the right to act on his judgment. Poor people, they claim, are incapable of making rational choices and so must be protected from themselves. The fact, however, is that human beings (poor or rich) do have the capacity to reason, and should be free to exercise it. So long as a person respects the rights of others, he ought to be free to live his life as he judges best, without interference from the government or anybody else.
Of course, the decision to sell an organ should not be made lightly. That some people might make irrational choices, however, is no reason to violate the rights of everyone. If the law recognizes our right to give away an 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 a difficult-to-execute criminal action is today far greater than it would be if patients could legally and openly buy the organs they need.)
Opponents of a free market in organs argue as well that it would benefit only those who could afford to pay--not necessarily those most in need. This objection should also be rejected. Need does not give anyone the right to damage the lives of other people, by prohibiting a seller from getting the best price for his organ, or a buyer from purchasing an organ to further his life. Those who can 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 would enhance the ability of charitable organizations to procure organs.
Ask yourself: if your life depended on getting an organ, 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 being requires to sustain his life. This right becomes meaningless when the law forbids you to buy a kidney or liver that would preserve your life.
If the government upheld the rights of potential buyers and sellers of organs, many of the 90,000 people now waiting for organs would be spared hideous suffering and an early death. How many?
Let's find out.
David Holcberg is a media research specialist at the Ayn Rand Institute in Irvine, CA. The Institute promotes the ideas of Ayn Rand--best-selling author of Atlas Shrugged and The Fountainhead and originator of the philosophy of Objectivism.