The case for a kidney marketplace

January 20, 2014 at 4:38 PM EDT

Doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, conduct a kidney transplant. According to economists Gary Becker and Julio Elias, a growing supply gap for kidney donations is plaguing the nation. Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/GettyImages

Paying kidney donors for their organs may help to close the growing supply gap for transplant surgery in the United States, say two prominent economists. Nobel-prize winning economist Gary Becker and colleague Julio Elias made waves Sunday in an essay appearing in the Wall Street Journal to outline their proposal.

According to statistics from the National Kidney Foundation, there were 96,645 people waiting for kidney transplants in the U.S. as of June 2013. With an average wait time of 4.5 years for a donor match and transplant in the U.S. according to the essay, a growing supply gap is plaguing Americans.

In addition to cadavers, about 34 percent of kidneys now come from live donors. The majority of those exchanges come from close family of those who need the transplants. The rest come from people who just want to help.

But many are failed by this system, say Becker and Elias. And the hardships of staying on dialysis are too much for some, with annual dialysis costs averaging $80,000.

“Paying for organs would lead to more transplants–and thereby, perhaps, to a large increase in the overall medical costs of transplantation. But it would save the cost of dialysis for people waiting for kidney transplants and other costs to individuals waiting for other organs. More important, it would prevent thousands of deaths and improve the quality of life among those who now must wait years before getting the organs they need.”

The cost of a kidney? $15,000, they estimate. But the true cost could be as high as $25,000 or as low as $5,000.

The proposal is controversial. Many feel that the sale of body parts is immoral, with others expressing concern that the majority of donors would be desperate poor.

Writing for Life News, Wesley J. Smith said the proposal tackles the wrong issue, “Our fear of suffering does not justify slouching toward the creation of a market in human organs. Indeed, our real focus should be on the immorality of the buyers and the medical professionals who make it possible.”

Addressing the controversy, the economists said the poor are the ones who suffer more than anyone else from the current scarcity.

“Any claim about the supposed immorality of organ sales should be weighed against the morality of preventing thousands of deaths each year and improving the quality of life of those waiting for organs,” they wrote.

And they said the sale of body parts is not unheard of, with market-determined payments commonly going to surrogate mothers.

Iran currently allows for the sale of kidneys by living donors, and Australia and Singapore have recently allowed limited payments to donors for lost time at work.

H/T Sarah Sheffer