Living Kidney Donors Should Receive Money for Their Costs of Donating

Arthur L. Caplan, PhD


March 21, 2023

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Hi. I'm Art Caplan. I'm at the Division of Medical Ethics at New York University's Grossman School of Medicine in New York City.

We've had an organ shortage for many decades now. We can do more transplants than we have organs made available. We try very hard to get organ donation from those who die. That's a commendable thing to do. I think doctors should always be discussing the opportunity to donate organs upon death, even in primary care settings.

It's good to find out what people's attitudes are. Let them learn about organ donation as something they can think about. Let them talk about it with family and friends and partners so that they know their wishes.

However, despite these efforts to encourage organ donation, we still have far fewer organs than we could use to transplant people, many people die on waiting lists because there are no organs to give them, and we're in a situation where demand for organ transplant is actually increasing.

There is more capacity to do transplants both in the US and elsewhere, and more people are living longer, so organ failure starts to become more common before, let's say, terminal illness is really there. Now, we have more people who might benefit from organ transplant in an aging population.

One place to turn to help reduce the shortage of organs is to living donation. At least insofar as kidneys go, kidney donation from living persons has become a prominent source of organs for those who need kidneys — most of whom are surviving on dialysis, by the way, at a very high cost and often with a quality of life that they don't find particularly easy to accept.

Transplant is far preferred, even though they have to take immunosuppression to keep those organ transplants going, and that has its own risks and side effects. They still get more mobility. They still are able to have a broader diet. They enjoy life far more than they do having to show up for dialysis three times a week for a couple of hours, every week, for every week that they live.

There is an interest in living kidney donation. One battle has been that, well, maybe we could get more kidneys if we just paid people to sell us their kidneys. That has been resisted, and I've been resistant to that idea, too, because I worry that it leads to exploitation.

The people who sell their kidneys are poor. They're often in debt. They feel coerced by their circumstances, so they make a kidney sale. This happens in countries like India, where there are markets underground, and you see that it's the poorest of the poor who do this, and they don't really work their way out of debt. They just wind up without a kidney, help relieve their debt a little bit, and pretty soon, because they don't have a job or an income except that sale of a kidney, they're not much better off than they were before they started.

Also, people who sell kidneys for money are more likely not to admit to their own health problems, raising risks about the quality of organs. Then, of course, it puts doctors in a position to take out an organ for pay, even though it doesn't benefit you, so that you can sell it. This raises some questions about whether that's consistent with medical ethics.

A different idea has emerged. New York State Governor Kathy Hochul just signed legislation that allows living donors to be compensated for legitimate costs. That's a little different matter. You're not buying the organ, but you're saying that if you experience healthcare problems due to complications from a donation, if you need money for transportation, if you lost money because you did this altruistically and you had to take time off from work and had expenses for a babysitter, restaurants, or other things, the state is going to try and create funds that will compensate you.

That, I think we should agree, is not a bad idea. You're in a situation there where you don't want to make people who are heroic, altruistic, and trying to help others by donating a kidney end up financially worse off.

I think there's a difference between making someone financially whole after the decision to make a kidney available and creating a market where the poorest of the poor come forward to just sell because they see no other choice in terms of how to get rid of debts. I see these situations as not ethically equivalent, so I support efforts to try and compensate people who are our heroes. I don't think we should ask them to financially suffer.

We'll watch to see what happens as the New York state law comes into effect. By the way, New York is one of the states that really lags in the supply of organs for transplant, so this measure is particularly important for that state. Many other states should be considering this legislation as well.

It's one thing to reward, if you will, a donor by making sure they don't suffer financial loss. It's a very different thing to say, let's have a free market and we'll pay whoever it is that's willing to sell us a kidney to do so. The former seems to me to be humane and just, whereas the latter risks exploitation.

I'm Art Caplan at the Division of Medical Ethics at the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. Thank you very much for watching.

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