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A shortage of donor organs

Today, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called for a review of the policy determining how transplantable lungs are allocated to those on waiting lists for donor lungs.  You can read about it and the case of 10 year old Sarah Murnaghan who has end-stage cystic fibrosis in this CBS news story from today.

The tragedy is not just that this young girl is likely to die because there are no lungs allocated for those her age, and that is surely tragic enough, but that there are thousands dying every year because of a shortage of donor organs.  With advances in transplantation, especially in anti-rejection medications, more and more people seek donor organs.  The problem is that there has not been a corresponding increase in donor organs supplied.  One reason for this is that there is nothing prodding potential donor families to give those organs.  We will see in our chapter on price controls how attempts to keep prices down with legal controls cause shortages, which is the case with transplanted organs.  This was something I pointed out in this opinion-editorial essay or column I wrote in 1999 for the Bayou Business Review, “Trading in kidneys and the kindness of strangers.”   At the end of that op-ed essay are partial lyrics to a John Prine song, “Please don’t bury me,” that I will repeat here:

Please don’t bury me down in the cold, cold ground
No, I’d ‘druther have ’em cut me up and pass me all around
Throw my brains in a hurricane
And the blind can have my eyes
And the deaf can take both of my ears
If they don’t mind the size.

If you find these lyrics offensive because Prine approached the problem with some humor, I apologize in advance.  However, please know that both Prine and I take this problem to be serious. Someone dying needlessly is always serious.  That said, it helps to understand that forcing the market in donor organs to be completely charitable and preventing the donor families from receiving something for the organ has something to do with organ shortages.  All we can do now before rules are changed is to sign donor cards.


10 Responses to “A shortage of donor organs”

  1. LE says:

    In my opinion, with today’s technology there should be something in the works to create a better equilibrium between the supply an demand of organs for transplant. Changing the laws will make organs more available but the many people who will find this ruling unconstitutional will be unchanged. Its a shame that their aren’t enough organs, but this is where my interest lies, cloning, or the invention of functional organs. With the knowledge science holds today there is no reason anyone is shopping for a lung or kidney in the blackmarket. With this sort of scientific breakthrough it could only be good for the economy without interrupting peoples rights.

    • mcoats says:

      LE, It does not look like we have cloning perfected yet to take the place of transplants from donors. What do we do until that day comes? The answer that these medical ethicists think is ok is to just let people die, because it would be “wrong” somehow to pay people for their trouble.

  2. EP says:

    The fact that many children will die because of a shortage of organs is extremely sad. This shortage is due to the fact that many healthy children do not die young which is the way is supposed to be. It is a shame that little girl suffers ecause of the laws that prevent them from getting adult organs that may fit in their body. The fact that the judge overturned this law for this little girl is a blessing. A shortage of organs is what turns many people to the black market for organs which can cause death too because who knows if those organs are even safe to use.

    • DP says:

      I one hundred percent agree with this comment. I feel that once I die and I have an organ that can be given to someone to save their life they are welcome to it. My heart melts when people have to go on waiting lists for a organ donor they could possible die waiting for and organ. They have people die every day someone can help save a life because once your dead what are you going to do with the organs. I’m saying that a law should be passed, but I feel that everyone she be open to option of saving a life.

  3. CC says:

    This sad situation definitely illustrates how legal price controls can cause shortages. Transplanted organs are vital for people like Sarah. When someone’s life is on the line, it’s easier to think about becoming an organ donor than to actually do it. If only there was a way to persuade and encourage people, legally of course, to end the shortage of organ donors. I do feel that government interference would cause people to have the opposite approach towards the situation.

  4. KEH says:

    This issue reminds me of the novel “My Sister’s Keeper”. In this book, the main character’s sister was dying and the parents decided to have another child that was able to be the organ donor for the older child. Eventually, the main character brings her family to court for the emancipation of her body. Unfortunately, at the end of the novel, the main character passes and her sister receives the kidney she so desperately needed. This novel reminds me of this issue. The government could force someone to donate, but it would change organ donations forever. Not choosing to donate, I feel, is not selfish because some professions such as the military require that no organs be donated so that soldiers may be in peak form.

  5. GR says:

    Couldn’t the government pass a law where one would have to donate his or her organs if they were healthy?

    • mcoats says:

      If the government forced it, there would no longer be any organ “donations” on organ takings. A person’s body would stop being their own and your parts would belong to the government. If your own body is no longer yours, what is still yours? Perhaps the zero price limit should be re-examined. Let’s take a look at this tomorrow morning when we look at ch. 7 on price controls.

  6. mcoats says:

    Again, another FYI: Young Sarah has gotten her double lung transplant. Good news for her.

  7. mcoats says:

    Just to let you know, a judge has ordered HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius to overrule the organ transplant guidelines that prevent Sarah Murnaghan from being able to get adult lungs. See the Politico story at:

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