Science & Technology

41 Percent Say It's OK to Pay Organ Donors in Cash Money


At long last, Americans are warming up to the idea of a market for all of the spare kidneys, bone marrow, liver chunks, and other life-saving organs that walking, talking, still-alive humans have to offer. 

NPR asked 3,000 people what they thought about compensating live donors. A surprising 41 percent said they were OK with the idea of paying cash for organs.

As of today, there are 114,349 people on the donor waiting list, more than 50,000 of whom are waiting for kidneys. And there are an awful lot of people walking around with a perfectly good spare one. Like Associate Editor Mike Riggs, for instance.

And while compensating kidney and liver donors is still illegal in the United States, a U.S. District Court recently ruled that some types of bone marrow donors may be compensated in a manner similar to blood, egg, and sperm donors.

NPR's numbers echo finding from a March Reason-Rupe poll, which found that:

A majority of Americans (55%) favor allowing healthy people under medical supervision to sell their organs to patients who need them for transplants. 

As in the Reason-Rupe poll, NPR found that younger people were more comfortable with the idea of paying donors.

The breakdown of approval for the different kinds of compensation is particularly interesting.

If compensation took the form of credits for health care needs, about 60 percent of Americans would support it. Tax credits and tuition reimbursement were viewed favorably by 46 percent and 42 percent, respectively. Cash for organs was seen as OK by 41 percent of respondents.

Tax credits, which are essentially identical to cash, earn an extra 5 percent approval. Perhaps people feel more comfortable laundering payments through the government?

But when the compensation is in the form of health services, the approval number shoots way up, which seems bizarre. Wouldn't the result be to incentivize donations from people who otherwise lack a way to pay for necessary health care? One explanation may be that people prefer to think of transactions involving organs as gifts (donations, you might even say). As gifts, they are part of the gift economy, in which there is a great deal of deadweight loss, but also lots of social face-saving. (Think about the difference between offering a woman $100 after spending the night together or sending an expensive bouquet to her office the next day.) But when it comes to organ donation, the face-saving could come at a cost of life-saving.

For a great piece that makes the case for calling a sale a sale, check out this Reason story by Kerry Howley on her experience as an egg "donor."

Reason TV was on the kidney selling beat back in 2008: