More patients die because of organ act

A Brooklyn man was recently arrested for running a ring that traffics in human body parts, mainly kidneys.

Levy Izhak Rosenbaum is accused of bringing people from Israel to the U.S., where one of their kidneys was harvested, and they were paid $10,000. Rosenbaum then allegedly sold those kidneys to desperate patients in the U.S. for as much as $160,000.

The sad thing is that Rosenbaum’s lucrative pastime — yes, he is to be considered innocent until proven guilty, but secret recordings by undercover investigators are said to show him saying he did many such transactions over the past 10 years — was virtually created by a federal law that makes it illegal to compensate people for donating body parts, before or after death.

The 1984 National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), pushed most aggressively by then-Congressman Al Gore, makes it a felony to knowingly buy or sell organs for transplant.

The argument is that openly buying and selling body parts would lead to “commodification” of organs and could lead to exploitation of poor people by rich people.

Since the act was passed, however, a chronic shortage of transplantable organs has developed and increased every year. As of this year, according to Sally Satel of the American Enterprise Institute (who, fortunately, received a kidney from a friend in 2006), more than 80,000 Americans are waiting for a kidney, and 13 of them die needlessly every day.

Satel told us that kidney dialysis, the inferior alternative to transplantation, costs about $70,000 a year. Only about 1 percent of Medicare recipients are on dialysis, but dialysis accounts for 8 percent of Medicare payments.

The obvious solution to this problem is to allow compensation for donated kidneys and other organs. When a kidney transplant occurs, the doctor gets paid, the hospital gets paid, and various attendants get paid. But it is a felony to pay the one person whose contribution is utterly essential to saving the life of another person.

This is ethics turned on its head. It is better to have almost 5,000 Americans a year die needlessly — more than have been killed in the Iraq war — than to have somebody willing to put himself or herself at risk for the sake of another be paid a modest fee? Incredibly, the National Kidney Foundation maintains just such a cruel position.

A few proposals to modify the NOTA law have been proposed. Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania is circulating a draft proposal to allow governments to offer health insurance, life insurance or funeral expenses to organ donors or their survivors. That would help, but simply allowing compensation to donors would be simpler and more effective.

It could be implemented with appropriate safeguards — certainly more than prevail in the international black market that has arisen — within the confines of the existing organ donation network.

That would be far more humane than continuing a policy that makes death preferable to money changing hands.