Is It Now Okay to Sell Your Kidney in the U.S.?

45062374_MLThere is a global shortage of many human organs for transplantation. Yet, it is illegal to sell your organ for transplantation in the United States.

Or is it?

Just a few days ago, President Obama announced a series of actions to encourage more organ donation. The president noted that while 95 percent of Americans state they favor organ donation, only half of us have registered as donors. The administration will use various tools to “nudge” more of us to register. He will also invest a few hundred million dollars in more research on organ transplantation.

How about just increasing the supply of organs through a free market? The idea of allowing people to sell their organs for personal gain grosses many of us out. Although, it is legal to sell our plasma, and many poor Americans find it profitable to do so. The moral case for a market in organs has been made by Independent Institute Senior Fellow Abigail Hall.

A major insurer may have found a side door into this market, by offering up to $5,000 to kidney donors to cover their travel expenses. Clever, eh? Of course, UnitedHealth Care would never accept the description of this offer as opening a market for organs. UnitedHealth Care states the simple fact that, expensive as transplantation is, it is even more expensive to have patients undergoing dialysis treatment without end.

It will be interesting to see how this evolves. What if we see a bunch of people from Bangladesh taking UnitedHealth Care up on its offer? What if the costs of travel and accommodation are less than $5,000? Will the bills be padded and patients make money from the spread?

I believe I am the first to note that UnitedHealth Care’s offer does create a perverse market for organs. However, I am surely not going to be the last. Politicians will soon figure out what is going on and decide they have to regulate it.

With respect to innovation, I expect the market could either grow or collapse quickly. Advances in immunology may make it possible to put any donor’s organ in any recipient’s body. On the other hand, advances in 3-D printing may make human (and animal) organ donation obsolete.

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