In prior posts, I introduced the question, If We Allow Football Players and Boxers to Be Paid for Entertaining the Public, Why Don’t We Allow Kidney Donors to Be Paid for Saving Lives?, and argued that the ban against paying kidney donors cannot rest on the basis of medical risk when we pay professional athletes to incur far greater risks. Today, I will talk about the consent process and the extent to which we might expect the system to protect participants – whether organ donors or professional athletes – from making bad choices against their own interests in exchange for the lure of money.
We believe that if NOTA were amended to allow payments to donors, potential kidney donors could be protected against being unduly tempted through the existing structure of screening, counseling, and delay, perhaps with some additional protections to prevent hasty decisions. On the other hand, it is not clear that NFL recruits have such protections in place.
Whether and when sane, sober, well-informed, adults should be banned by government authority from choosing to engage in an activity that risks their own life and limb is an ancient point of contention. There are a variety of hazardous activities that are permitted with no legal bar to receiving compensation. Included on this list are such occupations as logging, roofing, commercial fishing, and military service. Also included are violent sports such as football, boxing, and mixed martial arts (MMA). These examples illustrate a broad endorsement of the principle that consenting adults should be allowed to exchange (in a probabilistic sense) their physical health and safety for financial compensation, even in some instances where the ultimate product is simply providing a public entertainment.
One potentially distinguishing feature of kidney donation is that the harm is not the result of an accident, but rather of the deliberate action (of the surgeon and medical team). But this is also the case with fighting sports and with egg donors, who are compensated.
It is helpful to deconstruct the decision to donate a kidney under both the current regime (no compensation) and a hypothetical regime (in which the donor would be financially compensated). A well-developed organ procurement process in the American system seeks to ensure that potential donors are fully capable of making a good decision. Potential kidney donors are not only provided with full information, but also screened for mental and physical disability. While there is the possibility of “mistakes” (a decision to donate against the true best interests of the individual) under both a compensated and uncompensated system, the screening, consent process, and delays should minimize the chance for the kind of errors that behavioral economics has demonstrated are common. There is nothing intrinsically irrational about a willingness to assume medical risk in exchange for a substantial amount of money. But the quality of the choice may be influenced by a variety of factors, and we recommend some “nudges” designed to overcome the most common causes of faulty decision-making under such circumstances.
The same concerns that apply to the quality of kidney donor decisions also apply, and more obviously, to the decision to sign a contract to play in the NFL. Yet the consent and screening process in professional sports is not as developed as in kidney donation. Players are provided with little information about the risks, and indeed, the longer-term risks (including the risk of CTE in middle age) have not been well quantified, but appear to be far higher than for kidney donation. The payoff in both financial terms and status is also very high, and in part conveyed immediately. Any counseling or screening that might occur is up to the player to pursue.
In short, to the extent that the ban on compensated kidney donation is grounded in a concern that the lure of money may cause donors to disregard the risks of the procedure and subsequent long-term effects, that concern applies with even more force to participation in violent sport.
This, of course, is just a taste of our analysis and evidence, so read the full paper for more.
Prior related posts: