Battling for organs against the National Kidney Foundation.

Health and medicine explained.
Aug. 15 2008 7:06 AM

Organ Failure

Doing battle with the National Kidney Foundation.

National Kidney Foundation.

Early this summer, the American Medical Association voted to lobby Congress to permit the study of financial incentives for organ donation. With nearly 100,000 people on the national transplant list and 18 dying every day for want of an organ, the AMA resolution to address the organ shortage could not be more timely.

And yet the National Kidney Foundation, the nation's largest advocacy group for people with kidney disease, won't be a reliable ally. The NKF, which has a $32 million annual budget and is to kidney disease what the American Lung Association is to asthma, says it laments that thousands "die while waiting for that 'Gift of Life.' " But instead of locking arms with the AMA, the kidney foundation is poised to sabotage the association's efforts—in keeping with its recent practice of blocking any attempt to explore the possibility of compensating organ donors. Why the stubborn opposition?

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When I spoke with Dolph Chianchiano, senior vice president for health policy and research at the NKF, he told me that "compensating donors would cheapen the gift" and lead to fewer people donating overall. As a kidney recipient, I find this hard to fathom. When I was facing years on dialysis, any healthy kidney, paid for or not, would have been precious to me. What about would-be donors? Won't some be more likely to donate their kidneys, or the organs of their family members, because of the prospect of a financial reward? And if others don't benefit in this way themselves, will they really be dissuaded because other people somewhere in the country accepted a form of payment? When asked in a 2005 Gallup poll commissioned by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services whether "payments" would affect their willingness to give a family member's organs, 19 percent answered "more likely," while 9 percent said "less likely." That margin favors donation. Young people were especially receptive. One-third of 18-to-34-year-olds said the offer of incentives would make them "more likely" to give a family member's organs, compared with 7 percent who said "less likely."

There's additional evidence that the NKF is wrong here. Paying for other products of the body, such as sperm, ova, and wombs (as in maternal surrogacy) is accepted and has not created shortages. When someone donates his or her body to science, medical schools and tissue processing companies cover the costs of cremation or the burial costs of the entire donated body after dissection or experimental use.

The NKF also makes the standard argument that compensation for organs "could propel other countries to sanction an unethical and unjust standard of immense proportions, one in which the wealthy readily obtain organs from the poor." But India, Pakistan, China, the Philippines, Colombia, and other countries already harbor flourishing underground markets. Compensating donors in America won't spur more wealthy patients to travel abroad for organs. It's more likely to show other governments how to conduct a safe and transparent system of exchange under the rule of law. In the end, more people will receive transplants in their home country.

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