AU-organs 10/6/98

Bob Lowry (



Human organ transplantation ­- including hearts, livers, lungs, kidneys and others ­- represents one of the more significant medical advances of the past half century. By replacing a diseased or failing organ, physicians can substantially restore a patientıs health and prolong his life considerably.

For at least the past three decades, however, there has been a severe and growing shortage of human organs donated for transplantation purposes. That shortage, in turn, has prevented this medical technology from realizing its full potential, resulting in the unnecessary deaths of several thousand people each year. These deaths could be avoided if more organs could be obtained from the cadavers of recently decreased individuals.

Importantly, the organ shortage is not due to an inadequate number of potential organ suppliers. At present, a sufficient number of deaths occur each year under circumstances that would allow cadaveric organ donation to completely resolve the shortage situation. The underlying cause of the shortage, then, is not an inadequate potential supply but, rather, an inadequate collection rate. We currently utilize less than 30 percent of the potential number of cadaveric organs that could be transplanted.

This failure to procure more organs is directly attributable to an ill-conceived public policy which was codified in the 1984 National Organ Transplant Act, sponsored by then-Sen. Al Gore. Specifically, that act makes it a felony to buy or sell human organs (even cadaveric organs) for purposes of transplantation. In economic terms, this legislation sets the legal price of organs at zero. And few, if any, products on earth would not exhibit a shortage at a zero price.

The ultimate cause of the organ shortage, then, is a price that is fixed by government mandate below its market-clearing level. Given that cause, the obvious solution is to allow organ prices to rise by legalizing cadaveric organ markets (both purchases and sales). Higher prices will, as they do in all markets, call forth an increased number of organs and, thereby, save thousands of lives each year. In addition, organ suppliers -- the families of the deceased organ donors -- will receive compensation for providing the principal input required for a transplant operation - - the organ that is to be transplanted. Organ suppliers will, for the first time, be treated equally with all other transplant input suppliers -- hospitals, physicians, nurses, etc.


(Barnett is an associate profess of economics and director of the Auburn Policy Research Center at Auburn University; Kaserman is the Torchmark Professor of Economics at AU)

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CONTACT: Barnett, 334/844-2904 ( and Kaserman, 334/844-2905 (