Sunday, 24 October 2004

How not to encourage live organ donation

From the Miami Herald:

Authorities are seeking to extradite a Tennessee man - wanted for failing to pay child support - after learning that he underwent surgery in Colorado to donate his kidney to someone he met on the Internet.

Rob Smitty, 32, faces charges of failing to pay his ex-wife $8,100 in child support and medical payments, and a warrant is out for his arrest. He was recovering in a Denver hospital following surgery Wednesday to donate his kidney.

Smitty’s ex-wife apparently wishes that Mr. Smitty had not donated a kidney and saved a man’s life:

But Angie McCoy, Smitty's ex-wife, said she didn't think Smitty was acting out of altruism.

“It’s unethical, and it’s not right,” she said.

Others are also accusing Mr. Smitty of having non-altruistic motives, according to this Knoxville News-Sentinel story (registration or BugMeNot required).

In 1992, Smitty was sentenced to 12 years in prison for possession and conspiracy to distribute LSD. He served less than six months at a boot camp before being put on probation.

The criminal background only raises ethical questions surrounding the exchange, including worries that Smitty was paid for giving up a kidney.

“Why would someone give up a kidney to a stranger?” said Cathy Paykin, transplant programs director for the National Kidney Foundation in New York. “To get a sentence reduced? To look better in the eyes of the law? To get money? It’s so hard to manage motivation even under the best of circumstances.”

My take: let’s set aside the question of whether a free and open market for live organ donations would be a good thing. (See Tyler Cowen's thoughts on ths matter.) Mr. Smitty gave up a kidney and saved another man’s life. Whether his motives were altruistic or mercenary are irrelevant to assessing the morality of his action. At worst, his kidney donation was unwise from the perspective of self-interest.

If indeed he was paid for the kidney, I doubt that Ms McCoy will be complaining if she gets her cut.