Wednesday, March 29, 2006

China Outlaws Organ Markets

A marketplace for organs is a fun idea to bring up for conversation at social gatherings. They draw out a variety of arguments, both pro and con, with varying degrees of legitimacy. On the one hand, most people will consent to the argument that markets generally do a good job of providing for people in a world of scarcity. On the other hand, a market for organs also often highlights certain aspects of markets, such as the potential for unethical activities, that people do object to.

A recent AP article on China's regulation of the transplant business is an interesting example:

China's Health Ministry has explicitly banned sales of human organs in an apparent attempt to clean up the country's lucrative but laxly regulated transplant business. New regulations viewed on the Health Ministry's Web site Tuesday forbid the buying and selling of organs and require that donors give written permission for their organs to be transplanted.
I don't see much problem in the second aspect of the regulation, but I'm concerned about the elimination of organ markets.

Some critics, the article notes, "contend [a market for organs] is profit-driven with little regard for medical ethics." Both parts of this sentence may be true, but I'm not so sure that if they are true, this would be sufficient reason to outlaw the market all together. One of the benefits of a market for organs is that it is profit-driven. After all, supply curves are upward sloping. The article notes that "Voluntary donations remain far below demand, partly because of cultural biases against organ removal". Allowing for monetary payments may create incentives to increase supply and, presumably, save more lives.

Secondly, the potential that some people will not practice medicine ethically seems little reason to outlaw the market in totality. If one truly feared unethical activities, it seems the more prudent step would be to regulate or monitor it, not implement an outright ban.

Other critics raise concerns about the safety of such transplant markets. That doesn't make much sense to me. It seems that outlawing organ sales will increase the danger rather than decrease it. Black market doctors will have more difficulty obtaining quality trained staff and clean operating rooms. It would seem the elasticity of demand for an organ transplant is fairly inelastic; that is, not many people will leave the market just because it's illegal. As a result, nearly as many people will enter worse facilities to get riskier operations. Furthermore, based on the data given in the article, only about .001% of people who received transplants last year become seriously ill or died. That seem extremely low to me.

I admit that the idea of a market for organs is provocative at first glance. There may be some reasons to limit them, but I haven't seen any arguments that make a good enough case to ban them outright.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


I was watching TV the other day and they said that something like one person dies per week waiting for an organ transplant in Richmond, VA. (I was watching local news)... I got sooo angry... They should have said, "Because of a law against selling kidneys, 1 person dies per week in richmond alone." Seriously, kidney's would probably sell for 20k each (I used some real expert economic analysis to figure that out) if there was no ban on them! Anyone can borrow that much and buy their kidney! Insurance companies could cover the cost! but nooooo, organ transplants are the DEVIL!