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Selling Body Organs Lesson Plans

Should we create some sort of an international legal system to sell and buy human organs? Or is any such system fundamentally unethical?



Those of us in desperate need some of money can sell some parts of ourselves (Blood, sperm, eggs), but not others (kidney, liver, heart).  Sales of vital organs, such as a heart, and non-vital organs like one of our two kidneys are illegal in every nation except Iran.  But this policy is not without it’s critic.  Why should we not be able to sell these organs?  After all, are they not ours – and don’t we have the right to sell what is ours? 

The demand is certainly there: in the US alone, more than 77,000 people are on the waiting list for kidney transplants.  Most of them will die because the organ they need is not available.  Shouldn't they have the right to purchase these organs from those willing to part with them for monetary compensation?

Or is there something fundamentally immoral about treating our body parts as a commodities to be bought and sold?  Would a market in body organs result in the unfair exploitation of poor people who have little else to sell?  Could we devise an international legal system that precludes exploitation?

What are the ethics of selling body organs?


Instructor preparation:

  • Reading of suggested materials below
  • General understanding of the major issues in question:
    • What limits, if any, are there on the right to do what one pleases with one’s body?
    • What limits, if any, are there on what should or can be treated as a commodity to be bought and sold?
    • What are the possibilities for exploitation in a legal organ market?
    • Arguments offered regarding the empirical question of what policy will result in the greatest amount of available organs for transplant
    • Is a policy for distributing life-saving organs in a way that favors wealthier candidates a just one?



The resources below are intended to give the reader an introduction to the problem that presents them with some of the major issues of the debate without going into much detail about any specific issue.





Do: Ask students to think about and discus the following questions:

  • What reasons might we have for not treating body organs as commodities that may be bought or sold by consenting individuals?  Are these reasons convincing?
  • Is there anything wrong with allowing those with greater wealth more access to life-saving organs, then to those less able or unable to pay for such organs?
  • Is legalization likely to lead to greater or lesser availability of human organs?  What are the arguments for each side and which are more convincing?
  • How might international legalization benefit or harm lower-income persons considering selling organs to much wealthier Americans?  What worries does the issue raise about the exploitation of the poor?
  • What, if any, are the moral differences between selling one’s body in the form of hired labor and selling one’s body in the form of organs?
  • The very idea of selling a body part might feel intuitively repugnant to you.  What, if anything at all, does such repugnance mean when considering the rights of others to engage in a mutually-consensual practice such as the sale of an organ?
  • Should our social policy treat all organs the same, or should some organs be treated differently than others?  If so, why?  (e.g. organs we can regenerable like blood; non-vital non-regenerable organs like a kidney; vital organs like a heart)


* For additional ideas on assignments and lesson plan you might develop with this material, visit our Suggestions for incorporating lessons ethics into your course page.