Policy Analysis No. 614

Organ Sales and Moral Travails: Lessons from the Living Kidney Vendor Program in Iran

By Benjamin E. Hippen
March 20, 2008

Kidney transplantation in the United States is burdened by a terrible policy failure. The cost of this failure will be paid in the currency of years of human lives unnecessarily lost, as well as a massive increase in federal expenditures over the next decade and beyond. The number of patients with end-stage renal disease (ESRD) in the United States has grown, but the supply of kidneys—for the preferred treatment for ESRD, kidney transplantation— has not kept pace with the demand. Unfortunately, the issue is not simply one of supply and demand: in the United States the supply of kidneys for transplantation is kept artificially low by a prohibition on the sale of human organs.

If a decade’s worth of reports in the transplant literature are to be believed, only one country in the world does not suffer from an organ shortage: Iran. Although Iran clearly does not serve as a model for solving most of the world’s problems, its method for solving its organ shortage is well worth examining. Organ donation is ubiquitous throughout the world, but Iran is the only country that legally permits kidney vending, the sale of one individual’s kidney to another suffering from kidney failure.

After a critical examination of what can be learned from the Iranian experience that will help the United States solve its organ shortage, certain conclusions seem inevitable: The portion of the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984 which prohibits the sale of organs should be repealed. The savings that will likely accrue should be spent on long-term study and maintenance of the vendor system and on the creation of mechanisms to ensure fair trading. Finally, because so much is still unknown regarding how organ sales would work in the United States, individual transplant centers and organ procurement organizations should be permitted to experiment with how to implement a system of organ vending.

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Benjamin E. Hippen, MD, is a transplant nephrologist in private practice with Metrolina Nephrology Associates and the Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, North Carolina. He is an at-large member of the United Network for Organ Sharing/Organ Procurement and Transplant Network Ethics Committee and serves as an associate editor of the American Journal of Transplantation.