Demand and Supply: Kidney Markets

by Elaine Schwartz    •    Aug 2, 2013    •    1326 Views

By Mariana Do Carmo, guest blogger, Kent Place School alumna and undergraduate at Yale University
According to recent kidney donation and transplant statistics, there are over 80,000 patients needing kidney transplants in the United States who find themselves on seemingly never-ending wait lists. Out of those, more than 4,500 die per year due to the lack of donated kidneys available for transplants.
Every human being needs only one healthy kidney to survive. In fact, that one kidney often grows faster and larger to pick up the slack of the other. Kidney transplants are among the most common and least painful surgeries performed. According to the University of Maryland Medical Center, the chances of dying from a kidney donation are almost insignificant in number (less than 0.03% chance in each operation) and the side effects are limited to the possibility of infection, with no significant change to the donor’s lifestyle.
Why then is there such a dramatic shortage in the supply of this vital organ? One of the answers points towards the lack of incentive that citizens, or in this case, suppliers, face in order to donate one of their kidneys.
If our government legalizes the selling and purchasing of kidneys, introducing them into the market system, the quantity supplied of the organ would greatly increase to meet the quantity demanded. This system, controlled by the government and medical community, is a success in Iran, the only country in the world that allows kidney to be bought and sold, and also the only country that has both eliminated wait lists and reduced the amount of deaths due to not having kidneys immediately ready for transplants.
Ethical arguments against a kidney market challenge the morals that are taken away when the human body becomes little more than a commodity, easily taken apart and sold for money. There is also the chance that the rich will take advantage of those in a poor financial position, pressuring them into selling their organs against their will. However, if kidneys were introduced into the market, the system would be regulated such that exchanges would not take place between the individuals alone, making sure that no one is put at an unwanted disadvantage.
If a monetary incentive is all it takes to save countless lives, why shouldn’t it at least be an option?
Until a kidney market is approved, however, there are others, such as Nobel prize winner economist Al Roth, who have tried to facilitate the donation process and increase life-saving kidney transplants by creating a “paired kidney donation” algorithm. This is an exchange in which family members who want to donate a kidney to a loved one but are not matches are instead paired with other families in need of a kidney, and who in turn have a donor match who is willing to give to the first family.
The statistics speak for themselves. While ethicists continue to debate the values and morals humans lose in selling kidneys, they cannot deny the powerful need to increase the supply of the vital organ, which is the biggest concern of the 80,000 patients whose lives are at risk, depending on a new kidney, and who would willingly pay for one, if only there was a larger supply.
Sources and Resources: To learn more about Al Roth’s algorithm and matching donors with patients in need of a kidney, explore this article. For statistics and information on the risks of donating a kidney, click here, here, here and the University of Maryland Medical Center. For an opinion on why legalized kidney markets benefit demand and supply, check out this New York Times article. And, for more on Iran’s legalized kidney markets, the Guardian provides the details.

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