The moral case for paying kidney donors

I’m reposting this from article from The Washington Post. While the numbers come from the US context, the reality of shortages of donor kidneys is equally applicable in Canada. Establishing a market for organs would be a radical decision, fraught with moral implications, and as the author notes, the “moral framework [of economists] tends to be somewhat blind to non-utilitarian considerations.

The moral case for paying kidney donors

By Scott Sumner, December 30

Scott Sumner is a professor of economics at Bentley University and director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center.

A recent study in the American Journal of Transplantation just reached what to many people may be a shocking conclusion: Taxpayers would be able to save thousands of lives and about $12 billion per year if the government started compensating people for kidney donations. According to the study, “these numbers dwarf the proposed $45,000-per-kidney compensation that might be needed to end the kidney shortage and eliminate the kidney transplant waiting list.” For economists who have long advocated for the creation of a market of organ transplants, this news is not surprising.

Shortages occur when regulations hold prices below equilibrium — that is, where the demand of a product and supply of a product meet. Often the result is simply inconvenience, as with the shortage of apartments in New York or the long gas lines in the 1970s.

But in terms of kidneys for transplantation, regulations lead to more than an inconvenience. The prohibition of payment to organ donors has led to a kidney shortage leading to the preventable loss of 5,000 to 10,000 lives each year. The cost of treating people with kidney disease is so high that an organ transplant market would not merely save lives, but would actually save money as well. According to the study, “the net benefit from saving thousands of lives each year and reducing the suffering of 100,000 more receiving dialysis would be about $46 billion per year, with the benefits exceeding the costs by a factor of 3.” Given this “win-win” situation, why hasn’t an organ market been created?

The main reason is that many people find the idea to be morally repugnant. Yet the two most common arguments against paying people for organ donations are both flawed.

Click here to read more.

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