Nations tend to fight over land, minerals, ideologies…and now organs. Public outrage spread through the UK earlier this year when it was discovered that foreign citizens were receiving the organs of dead Britons through private transplants. In a new government-commissioned report, Britain is now looking to outlaw all private organ transplants by October. As the vast majority of Britons are on the public health program, this report will effectively be targeting transplants to foreigners. It also has wider ranging implications for British organ transplants in general.
First, the controversy: between 2007 and 2009 about 50 non-Britons received transplants from posthumous donors. While the organs were not paid for the surgeries were with doctors receiving a portion of the operation costs, generally around £ 20,000. The media, citizens on the street, parliament, basically everyone, cried foul and the National Health Service (NHS) and government scrambled to investigate and respond to the public outrage.
The potential of these private transplants scared Britain far more than their actual scale. There are about 8000 patients waiting for organ donations in the UK, of which about 3500 receive an organ and about 1000 die each year. Compared to 50 private patients over two years these numbers seem reasonably large. However, the very idea that a private market for organs may be opening up in Britain was enough to launch the government into uncharacteristically swift action. What is it that’s driving the frenzy?
While some have labeled the outrage as racist (many recipients were from Central Europe and the Middle East) and others have focused on the patriotic/xenophobic concerns, I think Britain’s fears stem from looking at the rest of the world. In China, the buying and selling of organs only became illegal in July of 2006. Even now, it is unclear whether or not doctors always obtain permission form patients to harvest “donated” organs after they die. Amnesty International has called for greater transparency in how the organs of executed criminals are handled in China. Similar problems exist in Pakistan, where about 95% of all kidney donors are women, and the donations of kidneys bring in millions of dollars in medical tourism each year. Organ tourism, as it is called, is also a huge business in India. Most recipients come from developed western nations or Japan.
If you find the organ black market as despicable as I do, perhaps it’s time we both took a harder look at the nature of the problem. After all, it is the developed nations of the world that are driving that market. We are the organ tourists. Britain’s efforts to regulate organ transplants, to keep the problem off their shores, is admirable in its efforts to promote the fair exchange of organs. In the end, however, it can only fall short. Like the war on drugs, perhaps the war on terror, attacking the supply will never solve the problem. You have to fix the demand.
And the simple fact is that under the current system, there will always be more hopeful recipients than donors. Trying to forcibly increase the supply of organ donors would be disastrous. Could we require every citizen to surrender their healthy organs upon death? Will body parts start to revert to the state? There are perhaps as many problems in those solutions as there are in the black market. I just don’t believe that the donor-recipient system can be balanced.
This is a tech blog so maybe I default to thinking that technology may always be the solution. In this case, however, it definitely is. Singularity hub has described how artificial organs may become readily available, including hearts. Imagine a world where we can grow all the kidneys, lungs, or livers we could ever use. The costs would be high in a monetary sense, but much lower ethically and politically. I’m not saying that such a solution is a possibility we should all hope for, I’m saying that it’s the only real solution and we should all work towards it. Developed nations should be throwing money and resources into increasing the supply of artificial body parts. The buying and selling of organs may seem like a far-fetched scifi problem, but then again so did Global Climate Change. It may seem like an isolated problem, but so does water shortage. For many, 1000 per year in Britain, the problem is already very real and very local.