One stock debate in medical ethics is the matter of selling organs. While it has made the news once again, I remember debating the subject as a freshman in college back in 1984. While there are new players in the game, the basics in the debate remain the same.
One ethical argument for allowing the sale of organs is a utilitarian one. While the exact figures vary, for every 100,000 people who need organ transplants only about 10,000 of them actually receive the organs.
Currently people rely on organ donors and hope that a donor will die or make a live donation before they themselves die due to the need for an organ (or organs).
Since the law forbids people from being paid for organ donation, the number of live donors tends to be very low. After all, having an organ removed is risky and has a variety of problems associate with it. Hence, people generally only chose to donate out of love or, in rare cases, out of a great sense of altruism.
Now, if people could be paid for donating organs, then (the argument goes), more people would be inclined to donate. After all, suppose a person could sell his kidney to the highest bidder and make $30,000 or more, then he might be inclined to take the risk. This would mean that more organs would be available and hence more lives would be saved. On utiltarian grounds, this does have a certain appeal.
One counter to this is, of course, that it would actually create more harm. It would benefit the wealthy at the expense of the poor and would serve to further devalue human life. There is also the horror story argument about people stealing organs to sell.
Of course, it can be replied that the wealthy already exploit the poor and that the value of human life is little more than pious mumblings that really mean nothing in this day and age.
A second ethical argument in favor of selling organs is based on invidual rights. In the United States it has been established that a woman has a legal and moral right to an abortion. With but a little tweaking, the arguments for abortion can be used to argue for the selling of organs. After all, if a woman can have her fetus aborted because it is “her body”, then it would seem to follow that a person can have a kidney removed to sell it because it is his body.
Further, we accept that people have a moral right to put themselves at risk in order to make money. Soldiers do this, so do police, firefighters and people who fish for a living. If risking yoru life catching Alaskan King Crabs is acceptable, then it should follow that risking your life to sell your kidney is also okay.
While I find these arguments plausible, I tend to balk at the idea of turning organs into a commodity to be bought and sold. But, I suspect that this is more a matter of emotion on my part. I prefer to believe in the value of human life and I prefer to see people as people, rather than hunks of meat that can be bought and sold like any commodity. I am aware that the reality of the world is that human beings are commodities, but I do treasure my illusion of worth.