Taking Parts


The New York Times has a front-page story about the gray and black markets in human body parts used for medical training and research. "It is easier to bring a crate of heads into California than a crate of apples," complains one source. Another says supermarket beef is "better monitored than human parts."

The implication, of course, is that we need more regulation. But anyone who reads the story carefully can see that, as with the market for transplantable organs, regulation is a big part of the problem. "Selling body parts is illegal," the Times notes, "but there is no prohibition on charging for shipping and handling." It's not surprising that rules like these have created a quasi-legal market in which "the demand for bodies far outstrips the supply," and buyers (excuse me, recipients) are often unsure whether their sources are on the up and up.

It's true that legalizing the trade would not eliminate the black market completely. Some people would continue to deal in stolen bodies, just as criminals deal in stolen goods of all kinds. Bodies destined for cremation might still be diverted from time to time by mortuary employees trying to make some extra money on the side. But if explicit payments were permitted not only to middlemen but to donors' families (or to donors themselves), the legitimate supply would rise, prices would go down, and shady operators would no longer have much of an advantage over dealers who play by the rules. Naturally, this is one possibility the Times does not even mention.