Do you own your body?
I think the vast majority of people, at least in America, would answer yes. In fact, conceptually it’s difficult to answer in any other manner. Even the question must be phrased with the term “your body” in order to properly be understood. And yet I’m not entirely convinced our bodies are truly our own.
George Carlin once asked “Why should it be illegal to sell something, that it‘s perfectly legal to give away?” Carlin was talking about prostitution, but I think the quote remains just as valid in reference to the organs of our bodies. And the only answer I can think of, is because we don’t own the organs, and the true owner has set the rules.
The fact that you can’t legally buy transplant organs in America has created a chronic shortage of them. At the moment, unless you can get someone to donate to you directly, the method of acquiring one involves, essentially, signing up to wait in line for who knows how many years until your number is called. The entire process eerily resembles the DMV, except with hospital beds instead of 6 inch high plastic chairs.
Why such a long wait? Because the value of organs is some number greater then zero, but for the moment zero is all people are allowed to receive in exchange for those organs. Thus the system relies solely on the altruism of donors, not just in giving up something of value, but in undertaking the risk of doing so (even minor surgery, which this is not, always carries a risk, and of course there’s the long term risk of only having, say, one kidney instead of two).
If money were to be allowed into the equation, it stands to reason that many more people might be convinced that parting with an organ that could help the sick is a reasonable idea.
Among the many objections to this policy is the suggestion that allowing monetary payments for organs would restrict transplants only to the rich. This is far from the truth though. Donations haven’t been taken out of the equation, they’re just no longer the only option. Charity is still at play, just as it is in every other market in the world. And in fact, it’s conceivable that donations could increase after a fashion, because now those who either couldn’t donate organs, or were unwilling to take on the risk of doing so, may simply donate money that can be used to buy an organ from another party.
Others argue that allowing a market in organs would encourage criminals to murder fellow citizens in order to harvest and sell their organs. The fact of the matter is though, since organs are not a zero value item, this could already be occurring under the radar. In fact since the market has been restricted and a shortage created, the value of organs currently would be abnormally high. Legalizing a market here would likely reduce crime in this area by lowering the expected price, and thus reducing the incentive for criminals.
The other common argument against organ selling is that the introduction of money into the process of getting organs for sick people somehow makes the entire activity immoral and disgusting. And perhaps it does. I’ll be the first to admit, for one reason or another, my stomach seems to turn a little bit at the idea, and I can‘t keep my imagination from conjuring images of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster. But there’s two key things to remember here. First off, it’s none of our business. I’m sure there’s quite a few things we all find disgusting that we allow to continue simply because it doesn’t involve us (and I‘d like to nominate any and everything Madonna does as a case study in this). And second, no matter how repulsive you find the idea of selling organs it’s far more disgusting to think of all the people suffering and dying, waiting for transplants that they can’t get because the market has been restricted.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if we don’t own the organs of our bodies can we truly be said to own the bodies themselves? I encourage you to think carefully about this, because the concept of self ownership is the most crucial element to property rights. As a general rule we tend to view property from a Lockian perspective, which says because we own our bodies the unowned elements which we mix the labor of that same body with become ours. However, if we don’t fully own those bodies the entire idea falls apart. And then, can we truly own anything at all?