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.
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.
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)