The Ethics of Human Rights (68): The Case Against the Sale of Human Organs

Or, better, a case against it. I believe that trade in human organs is morally wrong, at least if this trade is free and unregulated (but perhaps also when it’s regulated in some way). I don’t think the same case can be made against the sale of body products such as blood, hair etc., although some of the arguments against the sale of organs may also apply to the sale in body products. I will bracket this problem for now and concentrate on organs.

I make the argument against organ sales knowing full well that there’s a huge problem of organ shortages and that some people will benefit from free organ trade, and may even lose their lives if free trade is not allowed. Hence, if I claim that free organ trade is morally wrong, then I’m not necessarily making the claim that it should be forbidden in all circumstances. If there are other wrongs, such as people avoidably losing their lives, that overwhelm the wrongs resulting from organ trade, then the former wrongs may be preferable all things considered. However, I believe that the latter wrongs are commonly underestimated by those defending the legality of organ sales. I also believe that there’s a blind spot common among those who claim that the wrongs resulting from a ban on sales typically outweigh the wrongs resulting from a free organ market: it’s not as if the only choice is the one between the status quo – which is in most cases a ban on sales resulting in organ shortages – and a free organ market. There are other and perhaps better solutions to the shortage problem, even in the short term.

Here are some of the reasons why I believe a free organ markets causes serious wrongs:

1. Coercion by poverty

Not a single wealthy person will ever need or want to sell his or her organs. In a system of free organ trade, it’s the poor who will sell their organs to the rich. Maybe a legalized market will reduce the wealth disparity between buyers and sellers to some extent, given the fact that the number of potential sellers will be higher in a free market and that the number of potential buyers will not. This increase in supply compared to demand, following legalization, will reduce prices somewhat, making it feasible for more people to buy organs. Still, it will almost always be the relatively rich buying from the relatively poor, especially if the market is a global one (and I find it hard to understand arguments in favor of a free market limited to national borders).

Many of these poor will be desperately poor, particularly if the market is globally free. A decision to sell an organ isn’t made lightly, and requires some level of financial desperation. The extraction of an organ still carries a substantial risk (e.g. 1 in 3000 die from a kidney extraction even in the best medical circumstances), and few will be willing to take this risk from a baseline situation of wellbeing or happiness that is moderately high and that can not or need not be substantially improved by financial means.

Hence, if organ trade is allowed, many sellers will be desperately poor people, and there will be more of those in a legalized market than in a black market. Now it’s clear that desperation can be coercive: it forces people to do things that they would not otherwise do, that entail risks that they would avoid at higher levels of wellbeing, that may be harmful for them, and that go against their better judgment. If coercion is wrong, then free organ trade is wrong because free organ trade multiplies the number of desperately poor people that feel coerced to sell their organs.

2. Trade instead of justice

It’s reasonable to assume that rich people are responsible for the poverty that exists in the world, if not directly through their actions (trade policy, colonization etc.) then through their failure to prevent or remedy poverty. It will almost invariably be the same rich people who will want to buy organs from poor people. Now, if you first create poverty (or fail to do something about it, which in my mind is equivalent) and then tell poor people that you’ll give them money but only if they give you their organs in return, then you add insult to injury: you have a moral duty to give them your money unconditionally. Insisting on the possibility of trade while neglecting the necessity of justice is wrong.

3. Objectification and instrumentalization

There are some other good reasons why it’s wrong to buy an organ from someone, even if this person willingly agrees to the sale on the basis of informed consent, and even if he or she isn’t coerced into the sale by his or her poverty and isn’t someone who has a moral and unconditional right to the money he or she would get from a sale. For instance, buying an organ from someone means treating this person as an object and a means. It’s a failure to respect the person’s dignity as a being that should be treated as an end in itself rather than as a shop or an organ factory. It’s not outrageous to view organ trade as a new form of cannibalism.

4. Unjust distribution

The previous 3 arguments against organ trade focused on the wrongs it imposes on the sellers. But even the buyers are treated unjustly in a system of free organ sales. If the distribution of organs is regulated solely by way of free trade, then the patients who are most in need of an organ are not the ones who will get the organs. It will instead be those patients able to pay most who will get them.

5. Crowding out altruism

There’s even an argument that points to possible harm to society as a whole. If more and more human relationships are brought within the cash nexus, then giving and altruism will be crowded out. It’s obviously the case that when people can get money for something, they will stop giving it for free. Human nature is what it is. But given what it is, we shouldn’t encourage its darker sides. It’s reasonable to assume that free donation of organs will all but disappear when people can get cash for them. And it’s also reasonable to assume that this reduction in altruism can have a ripple effect throughout society and in many other fields of life, especially when we take account of the fact that more and more activities have already been brought within the cash nexus: sex, reproduction, politics

No one assumes that everything should be tradable. Even the most outspoken proponents of organ trade draw the line somewhere: they won’t allow people to sell parts of their brains, I guess, or their children and wives, or the parts of aborted fetuses (perhaps fetuses specially conceived and harvested for their parts). So we have to stop somewhere and disallow the trade of some things. Why should it be evident that organs are not one step too far?


If organ sales do have harmful consequences, then what are the alternatives? If we don’t want to allow those willing to sell to go about and legally sell their organs to those capable of buying them, then how do we solve the shortage problem and save the lives of those in need of organs? We can do several things:

  • We can try to increase the number of free cadaveric donations, by improving the way we approach bereaved relatives, by introducing a system of presumed consent, by promoting explicit consent (for example through the introduction of regulations that allay fears that doctors will stop life support when they need organs, or through some sort of priority system in which those who have pledged cadaveric donation can jump the queue when they themselves need organs) etc.
  • We can try to increase living donation, by way of awareness campaigns.
  • We can hope for scientific breakthroughs that make cadaveric recovery of organs easier or live donations less risky, or that make it possible to grow organ in vitro.

Organ sale is certainly not the only solution to the shortage problem.

A final remark: given the fact that proponents of organ trade often rely on the right to self-ownership – the right to do with your body as you please – we may have to tone down the importance of that right. Which is something we’ll have to do anyway: for instance, there’s no welfare state if the right to self-ownership is absolute.

Economic Human Rights (35b): What’s So Funny About Charity?

I’ve stated before why I believe charity helps to prevent poverty, and why it’s better than government welfare, at least in principle. The welfare state, in my view, is a fallback option when charity fails (as it often does).

The usual argument against this view is that charity is bound to fail because it’s crowded out by the welfare state. People don’t and won’t assist others because they think that they already do enough by paying taxes, whatever the effectiveness or fairness of the tax system. The evidence for the occurrence of crowding out is, however, unclear, and that’s a “charitable” interpretation of the evidence.

Another criticism of charity is closer to the mark:

Charity is counter-cyclical. When the economy is booming and there’s less need, there’s also more capacity. When the [economy] is worse and there’s more need, donations dry up and there’s less capacity. That’s not a criticism of charities: It’s hardly their fault. And nor is it a criticism of the people who donate — or stop donating — to charities. When you’re worried about paying your mortgage, it’s harder to help other people pay theirs. But it’s a big part of why we need a robust, federal safety net that’s immune … from the ravages of the business cycle. (source)

Indeed, as the need for charity rises, the supply diminishes, and vice versa. That is why a theory of poverty alleviation that depends solely on charity is incomplete. However, implicit in this argument is that the welfare state is immune to the business cycle, which is obviously incorrect. A recession means a drop in tax revenues and a simultaneous increase in demand for welfare transfers (there are more unemployed etc.). Hence, a recession means a weakening of the capacity of the welfare system. That’s exactly the same mechanism that makes charity unreliable.

Fortunately, the welfare state can bridge over recessions by going into debt, something that few private charity donors will do. This means that a welfare state can keep its anti-poverty transfers going in times of increased demand for funds and decreased supply of funds.

More on charity here.

The Ethics of Human Rights (28): Private Charity vs the Welfare State

In a previous post, I wrote about my personal views regarding the best ways to help the poor. I favor private philanthropy or charity over the welfare state. Some of the reasons are:

  • The welfare state imposes certain costs on the economy, thereby damaging the prospects of the future poor.
  • Closeness and affinity imply a greater ability to help. And he or she who can do more, should do more (can implies ought). Citizens are better placed than the government to help poor people in their community/family because they better understand the needs.
  • Spontaneous mutual assistance fosters community spirit. Allowing poverty reduction to take place at the level of citizens’ relationships will strengthen feelings of belonging.

When all this fails – as it often will – and only when this fails, can a state intervene and can the welfare mechanisms and redistribution systems based on taxation begin to operate (these merely enforce deficient private philanthropy).

However, some claim that the welfare state crowds out private charity. If you don’t care about private charity and want a government monopoly on care for the poor, you won’t mind if there is crowding out. And if you don’t care about private charity or about government assistance to the poor, you won’t mind either. But I guess most people agree with me that both charity and the government have a part to play (although they may not agree with my chosen priorities). So it’s good to see that

government welfare programs [do not] appear to displace an equivalent amount of private charity. Private giving does not vary inversely with the size of government programs and there is little evidence for a “crowding out” effect. Many private charities, in fact, rely on government funding to some extent. Private charitable giving to the poor, defined in narrow terms, runs in the range of $10 to $15 billion a year [in the U.S.], and few observers believe that this sum is capable of significant augmentation in the short run, regardless of government policy. Tyler Cowen (source)

More posts in this series are here.