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How to Best Incentivize Organ Donations?

(Polka Dot)

Organ donation is a familiar topic around here. Back in December, we discussed whether there should be a legal market for organs in a podcast episode called “You Say Repugnant, I Say… Lets Do it!” A few weeks ago, we blogged about whether the idea of a legal organ market is losing its stigma. So we were immediately intrigued by news that emerged earlier this month from China, about a 17-year-old boy who had sold his kidney for $3,392 to buy a new iPad 2. From the BBC:

The 17-year-old, identified only as Little Zheng, told a local TV station he had arranged the sale of the kidney over the internet. The story only came to light after the teenager’s mother became suspicious. The case highlights China’s black market in organ trafficking. A scarcity of organ donors has led to a flourishing trade.

The story turned out to be perfect fodder for Michele Goodwin, who has embarked on a three-part series on organ transplantation over at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Goodwin argues that the organ transplant market is far too restrictive, and makes the case for creating better incentives for organ donors in order to undercut the black market. From her first installment:

Some might read the take away from Little Zheng’s story as a warning against incentives for organs, but that would be short-sided and incomplete. Don’t get me wrong, black markets in organs are illegal and brokers should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law for coercing, exploiting, and otherwise harming organ suppliers. But, keep in mind, organ demand outpaces supply, and the will to live is strong—Darwinian you might say.
Organ supply is a problem in China and the United States. In the United States, there are 111,519 patients waiting for organs. About 7,000 people who could benefit from an organ transplant will die in 2011. Most of those who will die are patients on the transplant wait list. The  patients who will hang on this year might wait six or seven years before a suitable organ becomes available. For an increasing number of patients that length of wait-time is a death sentence. For those patients, the black market is a logical solution.

In her second installment, Goodwin sketches out the restrictions that surround the organ transplant market:

The National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA) has been problematic for some years. Under the Justice Department’s enforcement of NOTA, there was the prohibition of organ swaps, meaning a husband and wife who didn’t match couldn’t swap with neighbors who did match.
Violation of NOTA can result in a felony conviction, with a five-year prison term and $50,000 fine.

She then lays out a few ideas on how to provide better incentives to donors:

Jake Linford, a young professor at Florida State University Law School, advocates for scholarships for kidney donations. According to his plan, give a kidney and get a full scholarship. No loans or owing the banks with that proposal. Other incentive-based proposals include burial benefits for families who donate their deceased relatives’ organs, tax deductions, mortgage forgiveness, and free medical coverage for life. These all have merit and are worth considering by states and the federal government—now, not later.
If we want people to step up to the plate to be organ donors in a healthy, transparent system, let’s give them something.  If police officers, fire fighters, and military men and women receive acknowledgments, including incentives for saving lives, why not show that same kindness to potential organ donors? It’s a much better and safer solution than black markets.

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