Organs in the American Markeplace

Would you give up your kidney to save a stranger's life?

How about if you were paid you handsomely to do so?

That is the crucial question tackled by a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania on living organ donation.

In a world where thousands of people die each year waiting for a donated organ to become available, researchers sought to tease out the factors that impact decisions to donate.

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They found that the higher the payment, the more people are willing to go under the knife.

The concept of selling one's organs to pay the bills is fraught with disconcerting implications, but if the study's findings hold true, an organ market may be a particularly effective way of boosting donation rates and, consequently, saving lives.

"If someone were to design an [organ donation] system, they would never design a system [like the current one] that allowed thousands to die each year while costing the government $33 billion in medical costs," says Dr. Scott Halpern, the lead author on the study and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics.

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A market-based solution, in which the government compensated donors a fixed sum for their organs and regulated allocation of the organs, "could easily bridge the gap."

The study, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, hopes to dispel some of the concerns most commonly voiced against offering payment for organs.

Halpern is not the only voice calling for a drastic change in the way organ exchange is regulated. But whether for theoretical concerns or ethical ones, his call for an organ market is met with apprehension and opposition by medical ethicists and policymakers.

The Proof Is in the Polling

In surveying 342 Philadelphians on their morning commute, Halpern and colleagues found several surprising trends among who would donate and why.

For instance, those living below the poverty line were nearly twice as likely to report that they would give up their kidney to a stranger than those who make $100,000 plus a year -- a trend that plays into the concern that an organ market would exploit the poor.

But contrary to expectation, researchers found that the bias is not affected by providing monetary reward. The poor consistently donated more than the rich at every compensation level, including none. Their willingness to donate didn't increase with compensation any more than that of their richer counterparts.

"This paper takes away the non-proven claim of exploitation of the poor," says Dr. David Cronin, associate professor of surgery at the Medical College of Wisconsin. "The poor have an opportunity to be compensated for donation. Why should they be further exploited by taking the opportunity and decision away from them?"

But the bias, in and of itself, "raises concerns about justice," says David Magnus, a professor of medicine at Stanford University and a co-author of the study's editorial.

An imbalance of the poor disproportionately providing organs to the rich has caused problems in other countries that have tried organ markets such as Iran and the Philippines, he says.

Another concern about offering compensation is that it would decrease the amount of people willing to donate for free. The study, however, and a growing body of research on the subject, suggests otherwise, Halpern says.

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