A Poor Rationale for Banning Organ Markets

At National Review, Wesley Smith has a post criticizing a Canadian proposal to pay kidney donors. He supports banning such payments because they would “exploit” the poor:

The drive to turn living human bodies of the poor and destitute into natural resources for the well off continues….

If organs can be purchased like a steak at a butcher shop, only the desperate poor will sell (and perhaps, unemployed college grads with a lot of student debt). It’s that simple–and exploitive.

It’s far from clear that only “the desperate poor” would sell kidneys in a legal organ market. But even if this assumption is correct, it is not clear why the poor would be better off if denied the right to sell kidneys in this way. Presumably, those poor people who would sell their kidneys value the money more than having a second kidney. Given that living with one kidney creates very little added health risk, this is an entirely rational and understandable choice. Denying the poor this option makes them worse off, not better.

If we must ban kidney markets because allowing poor people to take the risk of living with only one kidney is “exploitive,” why should we not also ban poor people from taking dangerous jobs as loggers, coal miners, police officers, firefighters, and NFL players? These and other occupations involve far greater health risks than donating a kidney. And they are often especially attractive to “the desperate poor,” precisely because poor people are more likely to be willing to take risks in order to increase their wealth than the relatively affluent. Furthermore, if “exploitation” of the poor is really the reason for banning organ sales, why not ban such sales by people below a certain income threshold, but permit them if the sellers are middle class or above? This could still save many lives, among the thousands people who die because they cannot get kidney transplants in time.

I presented a more detailed critique of the “exploitation of the poor” rationale for banning organ markets in this post.

UPDATE: I should emphasize that the argument I put forward above is entirely compatible with believing that there should be more redistribution to help the poor. If you believe that we should have more extensive welfare programs to benefit the poor, then you should also oppose supporting government interventions that make the poor even worse off than they would be otherwise. It is equally compatible with opposition to government-imposed redistribution. If you oppose forcible redistribution to the poor as a violation of individual rights, then you should also oppose government intervention that restricts the freedom of the poor themselves.