Defending Organ Markets


In response to last week's arrest of Levy Izhak Rosenbaum, who's accused of trafficking black market human organs, Village Voice blogger Roy Edroso dials up the snark, and challenges libertarians who advocate a free market in body organs to defend Rosenbaum.

There are lots of folks out there who need to send kids to school, or replace their siding, or pay off loan sharks—yet our nanny state prevents them from selling their own guts to do it.

We've checked McArdle's site, Reason, Drew Carey—no words of support for Rosenbaum yet. Surely they realize that this is the sort of case that will draw the common people to their side—why the delay? Maybe Movable Type is down.

Ha! Because 15 people dying each day waiting for a lifesaving organ is funny! And useful for scoring cheap political points!

I won't defend Rosenbaum any more than I'd defend Al Capone or the Juarez drug cartel to argue the folly of alcohol and drug prohibition. That isn't the argument. The argument is that if there were a legal market in organs, people like Rosebuam wouldn't be necessary. Oh, and fewer people would die waiting for a kidney.

Erdroso also wrongly assumes the only possible model for an organ market would involve poor people offering their "guts" up on eBay. That isn't how it's likely to happen. One scenario, for example, might have firms paying people a sum of money while they're alive in exchange for access to their organs once they die. Another might pay a donor's next of kin upon his death. 

Edroso might look to Britain, which is facing a severe shortage of sperm and eggs for infertile couples. The reason? British law prohibits the selling of one's reproductive matter. That isn't the case in the U.S., where sperm and egg supplies well meet demand. There's no reason organ recipient lists need to be as long as they are. For Edroso, it's apparently better that people die waiting for a kidney than for him to have to endure the unpleasantness of contemplating a legal market in lifesaving organs.

One person with far more authority than I did address Rosenbaum's arrest. Here's kidney transplant patient Sally Satel in the Wall Street Journal:

According to the complaint, Mr. Rosenbaum said he had brokered such sales many times over the past 10 years.

"That it could happen in this country is so shocking," said Dr. Bernadine Healy, former head of the Red Cross.

No, it isn't. When I needed a kidney several years ago and had no donor in sight, I would have considered doing business with someone like Mr. Rosenbaum. The current law—the National Organ Transplant Act of 1984—gave me little choice. I would be a felon if I compensated a donor who was willing to spare me years of life-draining dialysis and premature death.

The early responses to the New Jersey scandal leave me dismayed, though not surprised. "We really have to crack down," the co-director of the Joint Council of Europe/United Nations Study on Trafficking in Organs and Body Parts told MSNBC. That strategy is doomed, of course. It ignores the time-tested fact that efforts to stamp out underground markets either drive corruption further underground or causes it to flourish elsewhere.

The illicit organ trade is booming across the globe. It will only recede when the critical shortage of organs for transplants disappears. The best way to make that happen is to give legitimate incentives to people who might be willing to donate.

Here's Drew Carey on on organ markets: