Life on the Auction Block

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania is considering a law that would pay families of organ donors $300 to help cover the donors’ funeral costs. This has raised in many minds the possibility that in the near future organs could be bought and sold on the open market.

Christians ought to take advantage of the publicity surrounding these developments to rethink the moral dimensions of organ donation, procurement, and transplantation. These issues have been neglected in our churches and even in seminary bioethics courses in favor of topics such as abortion, active euthanasia, physician-assisted suicide, and health-care reform.

Some would make organ transplantation compulsory. Hospitals would simply "harvest" all usable organs from patients at time of death. However, for others this would be considered a desecration of the body. Respect for religious liberty and the convictions of others should lead us to resist such mandatory procurement schemes. There is no inherent "right" to another’s organs.

Should society move from a system of voluntary organ donation to an open market in organs? Currently, viable human organs for transplanting are a scarce medical resource, and many patients die while on waiting lists for donor organs. Would a "free market" in organs distribute them more efficiently, while helping many poor families with funeral expenses? Perhaps it would. Market distribution is often remarkably efficient. Yet, as Princeton political philosopher Michael Walzer argues in Spheres of Justice, no market system is ever completely "free." Every society has found items that it refuses to distribute by market means. Prostitution is illegal in most of the United States because, however incoherent the society has become about sex in general, it still believes that sex should not be distributed by market forces. Should organs be so distributed?

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1999
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