Cash for kidneys: The case for a market for organs

Finding a way to increase the supply of organs would reduce wait times and deaths, and it would greatly ease the suffering that many sick individuals now endure while they hope for a transplant. The most effective change, we believe, would be to provide compensation to people who give their organs—that is, we recommend establishing a market for organs.

Organ transplants are one of the extraordinary developments of modern science. They began in 1954 with a kidney transplant performed at Brigham & Women’s hospital in Boston. But the practice only took off in the 1970s with the development of immunosuppressive drugs that could prevent the rejection of transplanted organs. Since then, the number of kidney and other organ transplants has grown rapidly, but not nearly as rapidly as the growth in the number of people with defective organs who need transplants. The result has been longer and longer delays to receive organs.

Many of those waiting for kidneys are on dialysis, and life expectancy while on dialysis isn’t long. For example, people age 45 to 49 live, on average, eight additional years if they remain on dialysis, but they live an additional 23 years if they get a kidney transplant. That is why in 2012, almost 4,500 persons died while waiting for kidney transplants. Although some of those waiting would have died anyway, the great majority died because they were unable to replace their defective kidneys quickly enough.