Nurse: Beyond the stuff of urban legends, there really is a black market for organs– kidneys, especially, since a living donor can give one up and essentially have no ill effects. To be simplistic, the black market thrives because there are more people with kidney failure than there are willing– or cadaverous– donors. Iran has a program that allows the government– and the recipient, through a 3rd party– to pay the donor a “modest sum”. This brought up all kinds of stuff for both of us!
Lawyer: Hmm. The part about the recipients paying the donors was more immediately troubling to me. Access question — who gets the kidneys? Definitely legal issues here — in terms of ownership rights. Comes up in property law — in what way do you own your body/organs?
Nurse: I’d be inclined to say you own your body/organs more than anything else in the world– more than your shirt, more than your house. They are absolutely yours.
Lawyer: We can certainly conceive of different kinds of ownership — ownership that allows you to exclude others (you can’t just TAKE my kidney) or that allows you to give it away, or destroy it after its removal, but NOT sell it. These different sorts of rights can be separated from each other. At the minimum, we could say that you don’t own your body at all — all you have is a right to protect it against unauthorized invasion. So you can’t sell it or rent it out (prostitution, for example), and you can’t even control what happens to your body after you die (though in our society, you can) — see what I’m saying? Different types of legal rights we could or could not grant. Related question about who owns tissue excised from your body during non-elective surgery. (One case I studied involves the spleen removed from a patient with a rare form of leukemia being used for research and subsequent profit without his consent — and the court, though divided, allowing it, and granting him ZERO rights to any of the profits.)
Nurse: Is it ever ethical to pay living organ donors for their organs, as is done in this case (Iran)? There are of course lots of protections in place for the donors, including who can evaluate their suitability. Also, it’s a pretty small payment– but likely enough to be essentially coercive to someone who is hard up. in the article, doctors say they believe donors act out of altruism, but why then include a financial component at all? i can see including care for free, but why cash?
Lawyer: This might be part of the problem, too. . . people who are desperate might actually “under-price” this sort of thing. I’d venture to guess that in a real competitive market for this sort of thing, the value of all the pain and future uncertainty of giving up a kidney would be a lot more than $1200. But I agree — why cash at all? If it’s altruism, pay for their care, pay for some monitoring after the procedure, maybe even pay them for their time — but not for their organs.
Nurse: Normal consent procedures certainly won’t cut it, if you ask me– people frequently sign without understanding, knowing that the procedure is in their best interest. in this case, it’s in someone else’s interest, not their own. that changes the calculus drastically. to truly accept the risk, the donor must have a fairly sophisticated understanding.
Lawyer: How would you accomplish a “super-consent”? Is there such a thing already in place for other types of situations? Research?
Nurse: Research is the closest case I can think of, and research consents are far more extensive than a basic procedure consent. They can be pages and pages and pages, whereas a regular consent form that we’d use in the hospital is one page, with a minimal amount of information written in.
To what extent can the government intervene? it’s illegal to sell your organs, no? why? would a regulated system circumvent the concerns at all?
Lawyer: The government can intervene in that they can make it illegal to sell your organs — basically, if a doctor removes your kidney, you have no claim to payment. Of course, there can be all sorts of other “payment” that doesn’t leave a paper trail… bag of hundred dollar bills, etc. (cf. gestational surrogacy — can’t actually pay someone to do this for you. But you can over-pay them for nutrition during gestation, etc.)
Nurse: People CAN sell plasma and eggs, and both of these donation procedures carry some risk. not as much as nephrectomy, but still.
Lawyer: Is it just about the risk of the procedure itself, or also about possible compromised future health? (I mean, you definitely don’t need all your plasma or eggs, but don’t you need both your kidneys? Need as in, there’s a reason we have 2? Is the second one really just a backup? What are the increased risks of living with a single kidney? Will the health care system have to bear the cost of this risk, especially for the aforementioned patients who are indigent?)
Nurse: You really only need one. The risk of living with one is that you’re screwed if your one kidney fails. Otherwise people can live with a single kidney and have no adverse affects.
Lawyer: A further curiosity: are there really any other organs where we could see this come up? Most of the things we desperately need, we don’t have two of (e.g. liver). So, nurse, is this just, always and forever, about kidneys?
Nurse: Well. . . for now it is. It is possible to transplant part of a liver from a living donor. I believe it’s somewhat riskier, but in general it’s fairly successful. And like our earlier discussion, things like blood, plasma,and eggs are certainly part of the discussion.
Lawyer: I am also curious about alternatives. I know there has been work on artificial hearts — what about kidneys? (I mean, obviously, short of lifetime dialysis.)
Nurse: Well, dialysis IS really an artificial kidney. And as of now, it’s the only other way to do it. And if we wanted to open up a can of worms about cost, both financially and in terms of quality of life, that would be a good one!