The Market For Human Kidneys

In the U.S., there were almost 17,000 kidney transplants performed in 2012 alone.  While this figure may seem impressive, the number of those waiting for a kidney transplant is far larger (roughly 78,500 people). These surgeries dramatically improve the quality and duration of the lives of the kidney recipients.  Those who live on dialysis (the only known alternative to a kidney transplant) can expect around eight additional years of life and must live through regular, extremely uncomfortable and time consuming dialysis treatments.  On the other hand, people who receive kidney transplants get roughly 23 additional years of life and can function fairly normally.  In addition, dialysis will (presuming the patient lives the full additional eight years) cost in excess of 350,000 dollars while the cost of a kidney transplant in the United States is only 150,000 dollars.  Furthermore, every human being is born with two kidneys and can function with one while incurring virtually no risk of death or loss of quality of life.  A natural question to ask might therefore be: with the existing abundance of additional kidneys, and the extraordinary demand for kidneys, why are so few transplants actually preformed?

The answer to this critical question can be found in the way in which we as a society have decided to allocate the resource of human kidneys.  In the United States, a person in need of a kidney can get one in one of two different ways.  First, a kidney can be obtained through a system of waiting lists(which operate on either a first-come first serve or lottery basis).   Second, the person in need of a kidney can convince another person(usually a family member) to give them one.  It is interesting to note that out of the second method of obtaining a kidney, a sort of barter system has evolved.  Because not everyone’s kidneys are compatible, it is not uncommon for a family member of someone needing a kidney to donate their kidney to a different patient in exchange for a member of that patient’s family donating their kidney to the original person needing a kidney.  While such a method is more effective than many of the lottery and waitlist systems currently in place, bartering is inherently less efficient than the use of markets.  Thus, I suggest, for a more efficient outcome (both socially and economically) that we open a market of human kidneys.

Doing this would provide an incentive for some of the millions of people with unused kidneys who do not want to go under the knife without compensation for time off work, the risks involved in surgery etc. to donate their kidneys.  Providing a legal market for kidneys would also result in the removal of the effective price ceiling at zero dollars which the government has set on human kidneys and allow the market to function without its current deadweight loss.  A common sentiment among those who oppose this proposition is that the sale of human body parts is somehow morally wrong.  However, a closer examination of the world we live in reveals that we allow these sort of exchanges to happen all the time.  Those who use this argument against the market for kidneys must also oppose the use of surrogate mothers, the donation of plasma and military recruitment as all three are examples of people exchanging their bodies for money.  In a society where we already allow the sale(or rental) of other non-essential body parts(the womb, hair, blood etc.). it is high time that we legalize the market for kidneys for the benefit of all those involved.

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One thought on “The Market For Human Kidneys

  1. This is a very interesting topic to look at. I find it fascinating that, like you said, there is a market for body parts and even different “ownership” of body parts. I agree with what you said about there needing to be a more efficient system to transplants. As I read the blog, I began to work out the process in my head of a family member who donates their organ to another family member but the donated organ isn’t the right one. If they exchange the family member’s donated organ with another one from the system, it would inhibit a person who has been on the wait list for a while to use the kidney that was given to the patient whose family member donated. The system you mentioned that would be more efficient, socially and economically, would probably have more positive externalities and social benefits as well.


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