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Friday, February 4, 2022 Leer en Español

The Ban on Organ Sales Is Killing People. It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way

Legalizing organ markets would save lives, so why are so many people opposed to it?

Image Credit: Flicrk-National Guard Kidney Transplant 114 | CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A breakthrough has recently been registered in the field of xenotransplantation. What’s that you ask? This is the transfer of organs from animals to humans. This is very difficult to accomplish, since members of our species typically reject body parts from our brothers of field and stream; thus they cannot do much good for us.

Though xenotransplantation has not yet fully been accomplished, a first step in this long arduous process has just been made. Jim Parsons, aged 57, was brain dead due to a motorcycle accident. His family consented to allow a kidney from a pig to be placed in his body. He did not reject it, a first for xenotransplantation. It is thought, it is hoped, that this will eventually lead to the perfection of this technique.

Why would anyone want to do this in the first place? It sounds pretty grotesque, after all. But the reason is clear: there are tens of thousands of people on waiting lists to receive body parts from other humans, but the supply is woefully inadequate. Many such patients perish while waiting for bodily material from other people; if animals can make good on the shortage, multitudes of lives will be saved.

But this leads only to further questions. We learn in Economics 101 that whenever there is a shortage, demand exceeds supply. So far, correct. That is certainly true in this case. However, we also learn in such courses that whenever this occurs, there is a tendency for prices to be bid up, and, eventually, we arrive at or at least near an equilibrium point, where supply tends to equal demand. And then, voilà, there is no more shortage.

But the shortfall between many body parts demanded, and very few, relatively speaking, supplied, has been going on for many years. The reason is that the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 prohibits the sale or purchase of human organs and tissues. One can of course donate them, for free, to others, but one may not derive any payment from this transfer.

What is the justification for this policy, which effectively kills many people? According to the Health Resources and Services Administration, it is to ensure that “… the wealthy do not have an unfair advantage for obtaining donated organs and tissues.”

This is a curious line of reasoning. Why is it “unfair” for the rich to obtain the lion’s share of the goods and services of an economy? After all, is that not the main goal of earning money? And, in the free society, the only way this can be done is by supplying the goods and services valued by others. If this policy were extrapolated throughout the economy, the wealthy would not have any more diamonds than anyone else, nor Rolls-Royces, nor palaces, nor yachts, etc. Quite a bit of the incentive to help others through commercial activity would be gone in one fell swoop. We would all tend to become impoverished.

There is an entirely different but no more coherent argument for banning the sale of organs. The fear is that if a market were allowed for human body organs, and high prices were paid for them, thieves would rob people of these now-commercially-valuable items. “Organ pirates” would be unleashed, preying on innocent people.

But basic supply and demand analysis once again comes to the rescue. Simply put, the premium for black market organs is currently very high because the supply is so constricted which leads to higher prices. Thus, if the supply were allowed to increase, black market organ pirating would become less lucrative, not more.

There is yet one more major flaw with the present prohibition. What it says in effect is that one and the same activity, namely transferring an organ from one person to another, is entirely within the law as long as no money changes hands. But, when this dire, evil act – of commerce! – occurs, then the forces of law and order should swoop down and arrest the miscreants.

Mere commercial interaction, per se, is considered unlawful? Are we back in the Soviet Union in this supposed “land of the free?”

  • Walter Edward Block is an American economist and anarcho-capitalist theorist who holds the Harold E. Wirth Eminent Scholar Endowed Chair in Economics at the J. A. Butt School of Business at Loyola University New Orleans. He is a member of the FEE Faculty Network.