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A New Way to Increase Organ Donation?

I have a confession to make. Despite my love of science and my atheism I wasn't an organ donor until a couple of years ago when my girlfriend figuratively slapped me in the face with my hypocrisy.

Despite how useful I think organ donation is and the fact I know I won't need any of my organs or tissues when I have ceased to exist, something about the whole enterprise freaks me out. I also don't give blood but that's for a separate reason (see Trypanophobia; seriously, I'll pass out every time).

Still, I made the switch. I went to the secretary of state (the Michigan equivalent of the DMV) and filled out the form. A few weeks later they gave me a little heart sticker with "Donor" to slap on the front of my driver's license. This has led to some interesting situations like the time the guy I was buying a tripod from at Radio Shack asked for my license to verify my credit card info and as I handed him my license said "Thank you. And thanks for being a donor!"

It's no joke that organs are a serious need in our country. Many people waiting for a transplant -- perhaps as high as 18% -- die waiting. Countries like the U.S. rely on the good-naturedness of people to populate the organ donation registry. That is, people have to "opt-in." Other countries, like Spain, have an "opt-out" policy. Until recently, I thought that those were the only possible options.

Israel has recently enacted a third option and I am sure that many countries will watch its effects closely to determine whether or not to enact a similar policy themselves. In Israel's new system, people who have agreed to be organ donors are given priority over non-donors in the event that they are in need of an organ.

It seems that initially, this law has been very successful as the number of donors has skyrocketed. Of course, this sort of system requires that a certain portion of the population still reject organ donation in order for the people who have opted-in to feel they have gotten something for their, organ (if everyone signs up priority means nothing).

I'm assuming I am not alone in my (previous) reservations against donation and I assume that this is also true in Israel, if not more common -- many people have interpreted Jewish law proscribing desecration of one's corpse as also incorporating organ donation. So, I suspect that a small opposition does and will continue to exist. Time will tell though.

This post originally appeared on Stuff Smart People Like. Subscribe to the Podcast.


  1. The issue of organ donation and sale is one of my favorites. I LOVE to debate it because there's a few objectively right positions to take, but for some reason they're not the "popular: positions. The people on the wrong side are basically left with "but it doesn't feel right" or other such nonsense.

    Israel's policy is great and it's absurd that every country hasn't followed suit. It would make a huge difference here. The most obvious fix though is to make organ sales legal. Well, at least sales of kidneys from living donors. Doing so would undoubtedly benefit everyone involved. It would give people that can spare twenty or thirty grand and need a kidney easy access to kidneys. It would give people that don't have twenty or thirty grand and need a kidney easier access to kindneys because people with money that are ahead of them on the donor list wouldn't be on the donor list anymore. And it would give lots of people that could really use twenty or thirty thousand dollars access to the money (think how many people could have prevented their house from being foreclosed on or who have sick kids that need expensive medical treatments!). We live in a crazy country where 3000 people die per year waiting for a kidney transplant while 300,000,000 of us have an extra one that we're not allowed to sell! Yet if you suggest that kidney sales should be allowed, most people instinctively say they shouldn't.

  2. I'm actually with you Danny, but I think the system would need some safeguards. I'm not sure I would leave the "middle man" position of such a system open to for-profit companies unless they had a great deal of oversight. There is a great potential to mislead people here concerning possible lifestyle changes they may have to make, or problems they may encounter. All in all, I agree with the main idea, it would just have to be carefully implemented.

  3. I agree that some amount of oversight and regulation would be needed, but that just brings up another great reason to legalize organ sales: it would crush the black market for organ sales.

  4. I myself agree more with priority choice as I also see some difficulties with the sale of organs. I can now see greedy children lining up their parents for donations as soon as a little confusion sets in.....

  5. Well, that's where the oversight would have to come in. People would have to meet certain stringent requirements saying that they have the capacity and competency to fully understand the decision that they are making. As a note of bias, these evals are performed by people in my particular field, so I'd be all about increasing business.