That eBay auction of a human kidney


The recent moral outrage surrounding the sale of Live8 tickets on eBay reminded me of the 1999 eBay organ trafficking scandal. The details of this are quite well-known now, though I am not sure the key questions have really been addressed. To recap, in 1999 a human kidney appeared on the internet auction website eBay. Perhaps it is needless to say that the auction was terminated by eBay, though not before the highest bid reached extraordinary figures. The problems of organ trafficking seem to be exacerbated through the Internet, if only because it is much harder to control. However, control is not the only problem. Perhaps the bigger question relates to the degree of control that online companies have over the moral culture surrounding medicine and health. In this case - and in relation to the Live8 tickets - we see an immense institution being able to dictate what people are permitted to do. While the auctioning of human organs certainly has a considerably more complicated legal and moral context than Live8 tickets, each of them raises questions about how morality is constructed in society. In the case of the Live8 tickets, the pressure came from celebrities, particularly Bob Geldof and there was no legal reason to forbid people from selling these tickets. Yet, eBay took the moral high-ground, so to speak.

For many, the auctioning of human organs is unequivocally immoral. At the very least, it creates a messy debate about whether organs should be sold at all, though this is a more difficult issue. Offering a financial compensation for a body part is, for many, a reasonable exchange and, given the lack of organs, a necessary one. The difficulty, however, is that anybody who would want to auction an organ would clearly be someone in a vulnerable position and it is unreasonable to take advantage of that vulnerability, even if they might gain financially through it.