Jewish World Review Dec. 2, 2003 / 7 Kislev, 5764

Thomas Sowell

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The high costs of busybodies

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | It was gratifying news when fans around the country volunteered to donate their kidneys to basketball star Alonzo Mourning, who would otherwise have to cut short his career because of life-threatening medical problems with his own kidneys. However, the head of the New York Organ Donor Network said that it was a shame "that it takes a personal tragedy of someone famous like Alonzo to raise awareness" of a need for organ donations when 17 people on the waiting list die daily.

What is an even bigger shame is that laws block the supply of organs to people who may be dying needlessly as a result.

Take the case of Alonzo Mourning and suppose that not a living soul was willing to give him a kidney. He was going to have to either give up a $23 million a year career or risk death by subjecting his kidneys to the stresses of playing. Suppose the law allowed him to offer half of that amount to anyone who would sell him a kidney.

Do you doubt that there would be someone willing to part with a kidney for that kind of money? There might well have been even more people willing to part with a kidney than there were.

I happen to know a lady who was born with three kidneys — and in poverty. Do you think she would have minded parting with a spare kidney, in order to have a better life for herself and her children?

With more than 80,000 people on waiting lists for various organs, and many dying while waiting, why prevent such transactions? One reason is that third parties would be offended.

You know the words and the music: How terrible that the rich can buy other people's body parts — and that the poor are so desperate as to sell.

If you think that you have a right to forbid other people from making such voluntary transactions, then you are saying that your delicate sensibilities are more important than the poverty or even the deaths of other people.

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Banning organ sales does nothing to make the poor less poor. Nor do those 80,000-plus people on waiting lists have to be rich. Three economists have estimated the cost of buying an organ in a free market at a price well within most people's budgets.

Donors could collect the money while living, in exchange for permission to remove the organ after their death. They could also authorize an organ transplant from a family member already dead.

The trump card of the left is always "the poor." But, if our real concern is the poor, the money to pay for them to receive organ transplants can be paid by others, whether the government or philanthropic individuals or organizations.

Here as in numerous other cases, what it would cost to take care of the poor is a small fraction of what it costs to finance huge programs that cover — and restrict — everybody.

It is not just the political left that stands in the way of allowing more organs to be made available through the free market to those who are dying. An article in the neo-conservative quarterly The Public Interest argued that non-profit organizations alone should be allowed to handle any financial transactions if organ sales are permitted.

The fact that some organizations call the money they make "profits" and others do not seems to impress some people. But one of the biggest non-profit organizations dealing in organ donations today spends no more than half the money it takes in on actual organ donations, according to Forbes magazine. This non-profit paragon has even stonewalled the federal government on what they are spending the rest of the money for.

Like other bureaucracies, the organ donation bureaucracy produces arbitrary rules. These rules have kept people from getting organ transplants that were available because they were not available in the particular regions where they happened to live.

The fundamental problem is not simply how to ration the existing shortage of organs. The problem is how to reduce the shortage by getting more organs by lifting the ban on sales.

People who think that they should be the arbiters of other people's destinies are bad enough when they want to choose winners and losers in industry and commerce. But when they want to choose who lives and who dies, that is a little much.

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JWR contributor Thomas Sowell, a fellow at the Hoover Institution, is author of several books, including his latest, "Controversial Essays." (Sales help fund JWR.)

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