Your Money or Your Wife

Your Money or Your Wife

Your Money or Your Wife

Science, technology, and life.
Jan. 8 2009 7:32 AM

Your Money or Your Wife

Can you get paid for donating an organ?

In practice, you can. All over the world, people are being paid for their kidneys . But what about the United States? Under U.S. law, can you demand compensation for such a gift?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.


Richard Batista of Long Island, N.Y., thinks he can. He's suing his ex-wife for $1.5 million , citing, among other things, the kidney he gave her eight years ago. He says she rewarded his life-saving generosity by having an affair, divorcing him, and keeping their children away from him.

Newsday implies the case will go nowhere:

Medical ethicists agreed that the case is a nonstarter. Arthur Caplan of the University of Pennsylvania's Center for Bioethics said the likelihood of Batista getting either his kidney or cash was "somewhere between impossible and completely impossible." Robert Veatch, a medical ethicist at Georgetown University's Kennedy Institute of Ethics, noted that "it's illegal for an organ to be exchanged for anything of value."

I'm not so sure. Batista can't take his kidney back, but that's not what he's after. He wants his ex-wife to let him visit their kids, on pain of compensating him for what he gave her. And what he gave her, according to his attorney, wasn't just an organ but a livelihood. According to Newsday , the attorney says the $1.5 million demand "reflects damages, including how much money she made as a result of being able to continue working and not having to go on dialysis." So the dollar figure isn't based on the price of an organ (which would be considerably cheaper, based on the going rate of kidneys abroad); it's based on the income one spouse accrued thanks to the other's sacrifice. And sacrifices between spouses are treated differently, under the law, from sacrifices between strangers or friends. There's a tradition and expectation of common benefit. You and your spouse become one flesh—in this case, literally.

I'm sure some of you clever lawyers can figure out how to position this claim as an extension of those divorce cases where the wife gets compensated for devoting herself to her husband's executive career. "It's not the organ itself we're asking you to value. It's the financial benefit the defendant gained thanks to the risk, the pain, and the extensive, invasive medical procedures this good man, this loving husband, endured. Yes, it was a gift of love—but no less a gift of love than the other sacrifices so many spouses make for each other's careers. Let it be acknowledged in the same way."

I'm tearing up already. Will it work? I wouldn't bet a kidney on it. But it's worth a try.