Alex Tabarrok

Innovative Solutions to the Shortage of Transplant Organs

Blog Post created by Alex Tabarrok on Dec 11, 2015

Originally posted on January 9, 2010.

Millions of people suffer from kidney disease, but in 2007 there were just 64,606 kidney-transplant operations in the entire world.


Today in the WSJ I discuss innovative solutions to the worldwide shortage of transplant organs from places like  Iran, India, Singapore, Israel and elsewhere.  One interesting bit I haven’t blogged about before is routine removal of organs without the donor’s or their families consent.  China?  No.  America.  It’s been legal here for decades.

In a number of U.S. states, medical examiners conducting autopsies may and do harvest corneas with little or no family notification. (By the time of autopsy, it is too late to harvest organs such as kidneys.) Few people know about routine removal statutes and perhaps because of this, these laws have effectively increased cornea transplants.


Here is another bit on the shadowy definition of death:

Organs can be taken from deceased donors only after they have been declared dead, but where is the line between life and death? Philosophers have been debating the dividing line between baldness and nonbaldness for over 2,000 years, so there is little hope that the dividing line between life and death will ever be agreed upon. Indeed, the great paradox of deceased donation is that we must draw the line between life and death precisely where we cannot be sure of the answer, because the line must lie where the donor is dead but the donor’s organs are not.

In 1968 the Journal of the American Medical Association published its criteria for brain death. But reduced crime and better automobile safety have led to fewer potential brain-dead donors than in the past. Now, greater attention is being given to donation after cardiac death: no heart beat for two to five minutes (protocols differ) after the heart stops beating spontaneously. Both standards are controversial—the surgeon who performed the first heart transplant from a brain-dead donor in 1968 was threatened with prosecution, as have been some surgeons using donation after cardiac death. Despite the controversy, donation after cardiac death more than tripled between 2002 and 2006, when it accounted for about 8% of all deceased donors nationwide. In some regions, that figure is up to 20%.


More on markets for organs, presumed consent, and point systems at the WSJ.