I Gave Away a Kidney. Would You Sell One?
"To obviate the kidney shortage, we should heed the recommendation of Nobel Prize-winning economist Gary Becker and others by making it legal to compensate donors. Currently, the National Organ Transplant Act bans the "sale" of any human organs in the U.S. Those who oppose compensation object to its ramifications for donors and society. They argue that the poor will be exploited, and that people should give out of the goodness of their hearts.
But these lofty sentiments ignore the fact that 18 transplant candidates die each day. As the legal scholar Richard Epstein has put it: "Only a bioethicist could prefer a world in which we have 1,000 altruists per annum and over 6,500 excess deaths over one in which we have no altruists and no excess deaths."
Yet absent such policy changes, which have little traction in Washington, right now transplant chains are the best tool to facilitate donations. Chains begin with a would-be recipient identifying a donor—say, a man with polycystic kidney disease and his wife. In most cases, a potential donor doesn't have a compatible blood and tissue type with the intended recipient, so this spousal pair would likely be a poor match. (Incompatibility can marginalize the life span of the transplant, or preclude the body from accepting it at all.)
That's where organizations like the National Kidney Registry, a nonprofit computerized matching service, come in. The NKR and similar nonprofits work with hospitals across the U.S. to create large national exchanges, linking incompatible and poorly compatible pairs to highly compatible counterparts elsewhere. Additionally, by working with living donors, these matching services furnish kidneys that endure, on average, twice as long as equally compatible cadaver transplants.
Through groups like NKR, altruistic donors—people willing to donate to an anonymous person—initiate "donor chains," catalyzing multiple donations. Inspired by reading about a 60-person chain begun by such a donor, I entrusted the NKR to select my recipient. Their software churned up a highly compatible match for me more than a thousand miles away. Concurrent with receiving a kidney, my recipient's incompatible donor gave to a commensurately strong match. A courier delivered this donor's organ to a third hospital in yet another region of the country, completing the exchanges."