July 11, 2009 12:08PM

The Best Way to Get a Kidney (or Heart, Lung, Liver…)

An op‐​ed in today’s NYT describes the abysmal organ tranplant situation in the United States, where the demand for healthy organs vastly outstrips the supply. A snippet :

There are 85,000 people biding their time [awaiting kidney transplant]… More than 4,500 of them died last year waiting. On average, that’s 13 people dying each day awaiting a kidney. (Maybe you should hope for liver disease: there are only about 16,000 people on the liver waiting list, and one‐​third of them get their liver in any one year.)

The column’s author is Daniel Asa Rose, whose new book Larry’s Kidney describes his cousin’s travel to China to receive a transplant (skirting Chinese law).

Rose argues the United States can resolve the transplant organ shortage by adopting three policies:

[B]etter finance stem‐​cell research so we can start simply growing kidneys; build better mechanical organs; and change the presumed consent option so that people would have to opt out of donating organs rather than opt in.

The first two proposals, unfortunately, are more wishful thinking than serious policy, at least in the near term. Decades of attempts at robotic organs have yielded very disappointing results, and the many advances that we’re promised from stem cell research seem to be many years in the offing. If the United States is to save the lives of most of the people now on organ transplant lists, or who will join the lists in the next decade, it will be because of a dramatic increase in organ transplantation.

One way to accomplish this increase is to adopt Rose’s third policy — hospitals would harvest organs from the recently deceased unless the deceased has explicitly refused to make his organs available for donation. As the op‐​ed notes, several countries around the world already have this policy.

But this policy should trouble people who care about civil liberties. Should a person have to explicitly state on a legal document that he wants his body to be kept intact after his death? And even if the person has done so, what if the hospital (perhaps conveniently) cannot find the deceased’s documents?

Fortunately, there is an intermediate policy that would be much more respectful to the deceased and to civil liberties, would be easy to implement, would dramatically increase the supply of organs, and would have little cost relative to the other costs of transplantation: Incentivize people to volunteer to be organ donors — perhaps by granting a tax credit to their estate or covering their funeral expenses if, upon their passing, a healthy organ is harvested for transplantation. 

Unfortunately, this policy is prohibited by the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, a law that has cost more U.S. lives than were lost in the Korean and Vietnam wars combined. And this policy is opposed by many bioethicists despite clear empirical evidence that the policy would significantly reduce pain and suffering — which says more about the sorry condition of contemporary applied ethics than about the idea of rewarding organ donors.

Cato has done considerable work advocating this idea. For some examples besides the articles linked in the above paragraph, see this video and these papers.