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Let the Market Save Lives

February 21, 2002

Walter PaytonOn November 1, 1999, at the age of 45, Chicago Bears football great Walter Payton died while waiting for a new liver to replace the one in his body that had been ravaged by a rare disease.  Living in Chicago, I saw many people grieve and express sorrow for the fallen hero, who was truly one of the most stand-up athletes in professional sports.

As most citizens of this town felt sadness, however, I felt outrage.  I was outraged that somebody could die waiting helplessly for a donor organ that would never surface.  I was outraged that this happens every day to people in all walks of life.  There is one reason and one reason only that Walter Payton and many others are not alive today, and that is the fact that is illegal for anybody to pay for or receive money for organs. Congress outlawed such compensation in 1984 by passing the National Organ Transplant Act.

Currently, an estimated 79,000 people are awaiting organ transplants that will potentially save their lives.  Every day, on average, sixteen of these men, women, and children die waiting for their transplant[1].  Sadly, the simple, lifesaving solution to this tragedy has been deemed illegal for eighteen years now.  That solution is to allow a free market for organs and body parts.

Like any other good or service that is in demand, a market for body organs would thrive and efficiently allocate organs to those most in need.  Currently, from a supply standpoint, most organ donation decisions are made at the Department of Motor Vehicles, where you can check whether or not you want to donate your organs in the case of a fatal car accident.  There is also an organ/tissue donor card you can fill out, informing your family of the desire to be a donor in the event of death. Still, there remains a massive shortage of organs.

Why is this?  It's simple. Neither donors nor their families are being paid one penny.  In fact, it is a perverse fact that in many states, if a person changes his or her mind and decides to be a donor later, he or she must actually pay the DMV a fee.

If there were a free market for organs, it is an absolute certainty that companies would sprout up to offer payment to the person's family (or anybody else that person designated) for his or her organs in the event of a fatal accident.  This would immediately increase the supply of organs and would, therefore, save countless lives.

If a free market prevailed, there would be no shortage of much-needed organs (which today equals death for some), as supply and demand would set the price that clears the market.  It's the ultimate win-win situation, with money going to the deceased person's beneficiaries and, at the same time, many lives being saved.

It appears that there may finally be light at the end of the tunnel, as the American Medical Association has begun a pilot program to test the effects of payment for organ donations--as if any such "tests" are needed.  Any Economics 101 student could tell you that in a free-market setting, the supply of donated organs will rise, which will thus lead to fewer deaths.  In any event, it is widely known that if the AMA endorses payment for organs, Congress will vote in favor of it.

The fact that payment for body parts is illegal begs the question: who could support such a ban?  For one, the organization that coordinates transplants for the federal government.

This organization, the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS), is like many companies that thrive simply due to government interference.  However, its gall is unsurpassed when it rationalizes the deaths of 5,800 people a year.  A spokesman for the group stated, "Donor families have told us it's something they see as a wonderful legacy.  Because folks see it as a gift, they would really be deterred by putting a financial incentive on it."

This may be one of the most ignorant, backward-thinking statements ever uttered.  This is akin to saying that a supply curve is downward sloping, or in other words, that as the price of a good falls, supply rises.  This would be the first time in history that this nonsensicality would have been true.  But the laws of economics have not been repealed, and the supply curve is most definitely upward sloping, even for the market in human organs.

We can only hope that the AMA carries through with its actions and advises not only the legalization of payment for cadaver organs, but payment for organs or organ parts from people who are alive as well.

Every year, hundreds of people donate a kidney or a part of their liver to a family member or friend who is in dire need.  If payment were allowed, we would see more of this type of activity--and not just from acquaintances--thus saving many lives.

How there can even be a debate on this subject is beyond rational thought.  The sooner the AMA voices its support for a free market in lifesaving organs, the sooner people will stop dying needlessly, waiting in vain for a lifesaving body part that will never appear.


Douglas Carey is editor of The Burden. See his Articles Archive and send him MAIL. See also Waiting for Transplants, which covered this case when it first became public in 1999.


[1] www.UNOS.org: Website of The United Network for Organ Sharing.


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