The story of 10-year-old Sarah Murnaghan is something out of feel-good television drama. Here was a young girl fighting for her life as her parents made a desperate plea for public sympathy. Murnaghan needed a lung transplant as a result of an advanced case of cystic fibrosis. Initially, the government was standing in the way of immediate organ donors. In the total knowledgeable capacity of our fine political class, children under the age of 12 must receive lungs donated by other children. Adult lungs are off-limits. Health concerns over compatibility between mature organs and young bodies are cited by the United Network for Organ Sharing – the non-profit body that manages the national waiting list – as the reason for its prohibition.
Thankfully, Sarah’s parents would not take “no” for an answer. They started a social media campaign to petition Congress for an exception. Public outcry forced the hand of elected officials who debated the issue with Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius – even as Washington continues to speed toward the cliff of fiscal calamity. Sebelius refused to lift the rule, coldly (but rationally) stating “this is an incredibly agonizing situation where someone lives and someone dies.” Eventually, District Court Judge Michael Baylson overruled the restriction. Sarah then moved immediately to the top of the waiting list due to the severity of her condition. In a matter of days, she was approved for a new set of lungs and underwent surgery. Today, Sarah is recuperating nicely and will make a full recovery according to her doctors.
The tale has a happy ending – which is more than can be said about most state-centric battles. Had the Murnaghan parents not gone to the public and raised enough awareness for their daughter’s plight, success would have been unlikely. Blowhards like Sean Hannity would not have put their talent to good use for once and demanded a change of the status quo. The issue would not have garnered national press attention. The total absurdity of state management of organ transplants would not have received the spotlight of attention it deserves. But like most stories, Sarah Murnaghan’s battle with government regulation will soon fall out of favor with the attention-deficit news cycle. It’s a shame; especially considering her life-and-death situation was easily preventable.
The United Network of Organ Sharing is a state-empowered body which receives monopoly authority over organ donation. Under an economic system of free exchange, the demand for any commodity will be available if the price is right. There is no uniformed thug with a gun standing between two consenting parties. The state distorts the market process in favor of central planners who find the need to dictate how people conduct themselves. Occasionally their motives are pure as regulations are adopted to improve society. For the most part, however, government intervention benefits the few at the expense of the many. Basically, someone is paid off, much like in seedy mob rule.
The state-enforced “under 12 rule” does not appear to have any malice behind it. If anything, sheer ignorance is to blame. The doctor who had a hand in developing the guideline readily admits it was predominantly due to a lack of data on children in need of transplants. The effect, whether intentional or not, is a shortage of available organs for anyone under twelve years of age. According to the Slate, the number of transferable lungs for teenagers and adults outnumbers “pediatric donations about fiftyfold.” Sarah Murnaghan was snared in this very trap: in desperate need of a donor – and her doctors confident they could perform a successful operation – she was without a state-approved benefactor with just weeks away from death. The dire situation was just one more terrible consequence wrought by paternalistic government regulation. The timely judge ruling was, by all means, a life saver. But not all children are as privileged to have determined parents like Sarah.
There has been a lot of condemnation thrown about over Secretary Sebelius’ phrase “someone lives and someone dies.” This ire seems misplaced. In a world of scarcity, not everyone has the same access to resources. Some will be able to afford great medical care while others will remain not as fortunate. It is not moral or immoral, just the way things are. There is no great cure for the disease of scarcity – it is reality that must be acknowledged. Pipe dream schemes from politicians are no panacea. Like man’s infinite fallibility, scarcity is an ever-present condition of life. Denouncing Sebelius’s words fails to solve this issue, and misses the real point altogether. If the government had no role in legally barring organ donation, then there would be no indignation over its mismanagement.
Basic economics says increasing the supply of organs will bring down the price ceteris paribus. The current prohibition on unfettered organ selling acts as an artificial cost inflator. Should the prohibition on organ selling be lifted permanently, the influx of donations would unquestionably lead to more lives being saved. On this issue the state – through both its ban on the free selling of organs and iron grip on the transplant waiting list – has blood on its hands. But then again, needless murder is par for the course for monopoly government, so perhaps it should not come as a surprise.
The deontological concern over organ selling must be addressed as it is the rationalization for the current ban. The question is: Is it ethical to sell one’s organs? To answer, the Socratic rebuttal is asking if it’s ethical to violently prohibit someone from the right to sell their own bodily parts. If a right is a claim to property, then it would be senseless to assert that humans, as free thinking beings who have a firm concept of ownership, do not have the authority to sell what is rightfully theirs. As James Sadowsky writes, “self-ownership implies the right to give away property.” For it must be, or the concept of possessorship is bunk since others, removed from immediate vicinity, can wield control over one’s life. The body may be a temple but free will is the hallmark of man’s dignity. The very act of prohibiting human beings from, quite literally, selling themselves indicates that people are not the unquestioned owner of themselves. Holding to such a doctrine amounts to a kind of indirect servitude to the whims of decision makers.
There is still the argument that if organ selling was pervasive, many non-wealthy, non-intelligent people would be suckered into auctioning off both their kidneys for a quick buck. Sure, that could happen in some extreme circumstances. But so does prostitution on a daily basis. The average person makes bad decisions, there is no doubt about it. The man of little means is bound to make even worse – desperate and short-sighted as he is. It’s still quite a stretch to say that your typical mumbling and decrepit vagabond would kill themselves just for booze money. The same conscientiousness goes for the operating surgeon. As for the assertion that an unfettered market in organ harvesting would lead to back-alley, Kevorkian-type dealings, there is little safeguard for that in place now. The story of an innocent bystander being drugged and left in a motel bathtub full of ice with a hemorrhaging wound next to their abdomen is a myth. The iron law of prohibition is not relegated to just drugs – a black market for organ selling is a direct result of government obstruction.
Sarah Murnaghan’s survival holds many lessons for anyone genuinely interested in saving lives. I would hope the bureaucrats at the United Network of Organ Sharing would come to their senses and realize the damage they have wrought. But government power comes with hubris attached at the hip. Too often, good is thought to be done when bad is the prevailing effect. Such is the case with the United States organ donation network. The Murnaghan family conquered the institutional obstacles in place to save young Sarah. Others won’t be as lucky or savvy, which is an indictment of the whole system.