Governments cause lots of problems. Individuals solve lots of problems. When individuals try to solve a problem caused by government, they face an uphill struggle. The organ shortage is an interesting example, and since April is National Donate Life Month, the subject is worth reviewing in detail.

There is a large and growing shortage of transplantable human organs in the United States. Over 88,000 Americans are now on the national waiting list, and about 40,000 more join the list every year. Over 6,000 Americans died waiting for transplant operations last year.

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But these deaths are not the result of any real scarcity of organs. In fact, Americans bury or cremate about 20,000 transplantable organs every year.

Rather, the federal government has caused the organ shortage by bureaucratic meddling in the transfer of organs from people who no longer need them to people who do. The results are inevitable — waste, rationing, long waits and needless death and suffering.

For instance, the federal government has made buying and selling organs illegal, so that the only legal source of organs is altruistic donations. The principal structure for allotting these donations is the federal government’s monopoly system for collecting donated organs, which yields only about 50 percent of the potential supply. This is not to argue for a full-blown open market in human organs because that has its own problems, moral and otherwise. But clearly, some sort of incentive is needed to produce the organ supplies necessary to prevent many needless deaths.

As the organ shortage has worsened, several private efforts have arisen to attack it. These efforts include LifeSharers, MatchingDonors and the Links For Life Campaign. They’re all different, but they all rely on the power of freedom to solve problems.

LifeSharers is based on the idea that more people will donate their organs when they die if they receive in return a better chance of getting a transplant if they need one later in life. LifeSharers members register to donate their organs when they die, agree to offer them first to other registered organ donors and invite everyone else to join them. Membership is free and open to all at LifeSharers has more than 3,000 members, including people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. In addition to the incentive LifeSharers creates, it brings a fundamental fairness to the organ allocation system. After all, without organ donors, there can be no transplants, so it only makes sense that registered organ donors should be the first to receive organs if they need them.

MatchingDonors helps match people who need transplants with people who are considering becoming live organ donors. Potential organ recipients tell their stories on the MatchingDonors Web site, so potential live donors can pick someone they’d like to help. has arranged three transplants and has collected information from over 1,700 potential donors.

Links For Life also aims to promote organ donation by telling the stories of individuals who need transplants. Four members of the Links For Life network have received transplants. Like MatchingDonors, Links For Life relies on the power of individual stories to increase the number of organ donations. People are much more likely to donate an organ to an individual who needs it than to a faceless allocation system.

These efforts are all legal, and they all help save lives by increasing the number of organ donors. The organ bureaucracy should support these efforts, but it opposes them. Organ bureaucrats complain that LifeSharers isn’t fair because it introduces nonmedical considerations into organ allocation. This objection ignores the fact that nonmedical considerations, such as income, race and location, already play a role in organ allocation. Critics also complain that and Links For Life aren’t fair because they give people who can afford to advertise for an organ donor an advantage over those who can’t, implying that people shouldn’t be allowed to use their financial resources to save the lives of their loved ones.

There are two common threads to these complaints. First, all are attempts to limit your right to decide who will get your organs if you donate them. This right is protected by federal law and by the laws of all 50 states. But organ bureaucrats think they, not you, should decide. They think they know better.

Second, these complaints elevate "fairness" over saving lives. By citing "fairness" to oppose efforts that will increase the number of organ donors, organ bureaucrats show they are more concerned with how deaths are distributed than with how many die.

Private efforts to reduce the organ shortage are a new phenomenon, but they have already had some success. They show the power of freedom in the face of government intrusion, and they deserve the support of citizens who love freedom and who want to help solve a serious problem — often a problem of life and death.


David J. Undis, executive director of LifeSharers in Nashville, Tenn., will be speaking before policy-makers in Lansing, Mich., on Oct. 12, 2005, under the auspices of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute headquartered in Midland, Mich. Lawrence W. Reed is president of the Mackinac Center.