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Human Organs and Ebay: A Combination That Could Save Lives
by J. H. Huebert

The Collegian 
September 24, 1999


A few weeks ago, online auction site Ebay decided to block an auction for "one fully functional human kidney," for sale by the kidneyís original owner. By the time Ebay cancelled the auction, the high bid was already $5.7 million.

If that high price tells us anything, itís that many people value kidneys very highly, especially if theyíre in need of one for a transplant. Who could be blamed for spending millions on a kidney, if it were a matter of life and death? If anything is worth $5.7 million, surely itís a life-saving kidney.

 

Yet Ebay blocked the auction. Why? Because Ebay understandably likes to conform with federal laws, including those prohibiting the sale of human organs, so that they can stay in business. But, beyond this, Ebay vice president of marketing Steve Westly says that it just isnít right to treat the problem of a kidney shortage so lightly as to allow people to sell them online: "There are transplant patients waiting years for a kidney. To them, this is not a joking matter."

 

Iím sure it isnít--so why doesnít the government just let those patients buy the kidneys they need? Iím sure the cancellation of that auction is no joking matter to whoever was willing to pay the $5.7 million, because now he either has to wait for one to become available or die waiting. And somehow I doubt heíll feel any better about it with the knowledge that heís doing his patriotic duty by obeying the federal laws against organ sales.

 

That terribly long wait for a kidney that Westly mentioned exists for a reason: the demand for kidneys greatly outweighs the supply. Lots of people need them, while relatively few people are willing to part with one of theirs--at least, theyíre not willing to give them up for the price of zero dollars. Who would give up a kidney for free, except maybe to save a close loved one?

 

The reason we donít suffer shortages in much of anything else in our society is because people are allowed to sell other goods. If you were only allowed to give away cars for free, no one would have any cars, because no one could or would produce cars for nothing. If people werenít allowed to charge money for food, almost everyone who couldnít produce food on his own would starve. No one would go into the farming business if he was forced to take 100% losses on his produce, and famine would again become a way of life (death) in the world. So the solution to the present kidney-shortage problem should be obvious: let people sell their kidneys.

 

There is a moral argument, of sorts, that says that a human organ is too precious, too sacred in some way, to allow people to sell them. It cheapens us, some might say, and it "puts a price tag on human life." If weíre thinking that way, why stop at organs? Food is essential to human life, but we put a price on it, because, as weíve seen, we have to. Anyway, no one would be forced to buy or sell a kidney if it were legal--so why not let people who arenít bothered by the thought do so?

 

Even if the idea of people selling their organs strikes some of us as a bit distasteful, there can be no question that many lives would be saved. And what way to determine who receives organs for transplants could be more fair? It might be tougher for the poor to get organs than the rich, but thatís true of everything we buy. Prices would be high, but probably not as high as the kidney on Ebay, because things tend to cost significantly more when theyíre illegal. At least, if people could charge prices, the organs would be available. Perhaps charities would arise to assist the needy in acquiring organs. In any case, there would be no crisis as there is today.

 

The internet, and sites like Ebay, could be a valuable tool in matching up organ donors and sellers. The combined powers of medical and communications technologies could result in a lower death rate, with many people living longer lives.

 

All it will take is for the government to step out of the way, and simply allow people to peacefully and voluntarily trade in the market. Is that too much to ask when so many lives are at stake?

 

© 1999 J. H. Huebert