Selling Body Parts of Executed Prisoners: Morally Right or Wrong?
On the surface, this seems like a very straightforward question, but, as with all such moral and ethical dilemmas, it is not as simple as it has been made to sound. It would seem that question is asking whether a state can sell the organs and other body parts of an executed prisoner either to recoup some of the money it took to house them (or other seemingly legitimate excuse) or because the body belongs to the state once a person is charged with a capital crime. So, it can be argued, at least by some using a seeming alternative form of logic that this practice can be seen as moral or, at the very least, amoral. The reason people would say that it is an easy question to answer, meaning that they believe that it is immoral to sell an executed prisoners organs, is because a person's body is both their own and sacred. Religious groups and other who preach morals are quick to point out that an individual is in control of their own body even after death, so it is immoral to conduct such a trade. So the question needs to be broken down into different pieces to examine rightness or wrongness, and then each piece should be settled to some degree. This paper attempts to look at the issue from all angles and determine the moral correctness of the question.
The first point to be made is that it is not considered wrong in any place to accept a foreign organ if one needs that organ.[footnoteRef:1] Foreign, in this context, means from a different person not a person from a different country. Transplanting of organs has been occurring for more than one hundred years and it has been perfected to the extent that people commonly are able to survive the operation. So, the morality of accepting or giving a needed organ is not in question. People have already decided that the practice is fine. [1: Austin Cline, "Selling Organs for Transplants: Commodification and Ownership of Bodies," 2010, http://atheism.about.com/od/bioethics/a/sellingorgans.htm (Accessed October 28, 2012).]
The next problem then is whether it should be legal to sell parts of one's body to another. Of course, people are able to give their own body parts to one another, and this has been happening for a long time. Often times donors are from the family of the person needing the organ because they are the more perfect genetic match. The organ is taken from the donor and given to freely to the recipient with no moral objection by anyone. However, this is not selling. Selling the organs does present specific problems that are difficult to ignore.
Any commodity that is sold becomes more valuable as need or want increases. A basic principle of economics is that of supply and demand. If there is a great demand for any product, its price will increase if there is a shortage of supply. The converse is also true. In the present case, there is a vast shortage of available organs because living people, who make the best donors, probably need the ones that they have. There are those, such as kidneys, which people have two of, but they may need both is there is a future disease or injury which damages one of them.[footnoteRef:2] This makes needed organs very scarce and therefore very valuable. [2: Scott Carney, "Inside the Business of Selling Human Body Parts," Wired, January 31, 2011.]
The reason that people would sell an organ that they may actually need is that they have some need of capitol which they are not able to discharge using the regular means. In this case, it would seem that the individual should be able to use any legal means at their disposal to solve their financial problems. Unfortunately, selling an organ that could be deemed extra is illegal. Thus, the person is not able to gain the money they need in this manner even though the organ has already been proven to belong to the individual in whose body it resides.
So, this discourse must travel to the reasons why governments do not allow people to sell their own, admittedly, organs.[footnoteRef:3] In a true free market society, people would be allowed to make any bargain they wanted to with their own property, but there are regulations to protect people from outside influences and from themselves. One person making a bad financial decision will probably not cause a great deal of trouble to others. However, legalizing the sale of organs could be a problem for a great many people. The idea is that if the sale becomes legal there will be a rush of people doing it which would make the market unsafe.[footnoteRef:4] Meaning that the organs themselves would be unsafe and the market could become difficult to regulate. If the sale of organs is legal there would quickly be those who would take advantage of the situation and harvest organs from people who were unwilling to give them. This would be a problem of criminal proportions. [3: Austin Cline, "Is it Ethical to Allow Organs to be Sold on the Open Market?," 2010, http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/phil/blphil_ethbio_organsale.htm (Accessed October 28, 2012).] [4: Peter Ritter, "Legalizing the Organ Trade?," Time Magazine, August 19, 20008.]
However, on the other side of the issue is the fact that there are a great many people who need organs and there are those who are willing to accept the danger and have their harvested. Since a person owns their own body, it makes sense that they should be able to do with it whatever they want as long as they are harming no one else.[footnoteRef:5] In this, the individual is harming no one but, potentially, themselves, and there is great possibility that they will be helping someone also. So, both because there is a scarcity of organs and because people should be allowed to do with their bodies what they want, an argument can be made that people should be allowed to sell their own organs. But, an argument can also be made that it should also be legal to sell the organs of someone else. [5: Austin Cline, "Is it Ethical to Allow Organs to be Sold on the Open Market?," 2010, http://atheism.about.com/library/FAQs/phil/blphil_ethbio_organsale.htm (Accessed October 28, 2012).]
The logic in this statement seems a bit cloudy when first read, but it is clear if there are a few caveats added. No one should be able to take organs away from someone if consent was not given first. People do have control over their own bodies, and if they give a family member legally recognized permission to sell their body parts after they are dead, then it should be the same as that person selling them.[footnoteRef:6] of course, extra care should be taken to make sure that there is no illegal enterprise involved which is harvesting organs for profit, but does not seem that it would be immoral if the owner of said organs gave permission. [6: Peter Ritter, "Legalizing the Organ Trade?," Time Magazine, August 19, 20008.]
This finally leads to an answer for the initial question. It is now given that selling body parts is illegal in most parts of the world, but there is no moral reason for this. People are the masters and mistresses of their own bodies and should be allowed to use them in any legal way that they see fit. Thus, all that stands in the way is the legalization of selling one's body. It is even a given that one person can sell another's organs if the original owner agrees to the sale and allows it to happen. Usually the first person would have to be dead for this transaction to take place and the selling party would have some kind of document from the deceased that allowed their postmortem parts to be sold. So, why is it wrong for the state to sell the organs of executed prisoners to people who need them. The prisoner has no further use for them and it stands to reason that they should be allowed to pay for their crimes in this way if they so choose.
Of course the problem with this moral logic comes from several directions. Most of the cases of a nation selling the organs have come from China. The country has admitted that they have sold the organs of some prisoners in the past,[footnoteRef:7] but the government says that it was the last wish of the condemned to allow the government to sell them because they believed that this would help them pay for their crimes. The problem with this is that China has a very secretive execution process[footnoteRef:8] and most other governments and human rights organizations do not believe that they have the deceased prisoner's permission. It is very likely that the prisoners were coerced by their captors, or that no worry was taken by the Chinese in any regard before…