How will these resources help you? 

The topic of organ transplants is often included in KS4 and KS5 specifications, but few resources explore the full range of ethical issues they raise. The organ trade is a fascinating topic and leads to many interesting discussions with students. Between five and ten per cent of organ transplants come from illegal trafficking internationally. The practice is often presented in clear-cut terms as purely an evil, exploitative trade that creates helpless victims. However, key academics argue that remuneration for organ sales (currently illegal in most countries and against UN policy) could help ‘victims’ gain some volition and offer them more choices. I find the best moments in the classroom are when students start to see the grey areas in this kind of debate and recognise that there are often no unequivocal answers. The resources suggested here show a range of ethical views and aim to help students see beyond a generalised ‘victim’ view of organ sales while exploring the ethics of human commodification. 

A classic pro-sales view

Selling Organs, Gametes, and Surrogacy Services (Chapter 14) in The Blackwell Guide to Medical Ethics

by Janet Radcliffe Richards, published by Blackwell Publishing, (2007), 9780470690932

In this chapter, Richards presents a series of moral objections to organ-selling and then explains why, in her opinion, each one doesn’t work. She argues that organ-selling should be allowed, even though it isn’t ideal. Students will enjoy looking at her views against concerns about commodification, and especially her arguments that allowing organ sales offer people another option and not allowing them condescendingly restricts the autonomy of the poor to improve their own material well-being. In contrast, we routinely allow the rich to participate in dangerous extreme leisure pursuits. 

A wary but reasoned view

Commodified Bodies: Organ Transplantation and the Organ Trade

by Oliver Decker, published by Routledge, (2016), 9781138284838

Decker explores the history of our relationship with our bodies, including the idea of the body as a religious relic. He also looks at the psychological impact of receiving an organ transplant. He conducts an in-depth literature review of the arguments around organ sales and the organ trade and identifies an increasing gap between traditional views of bodily dignity and an economically minded willingness to commodify bodies. Decker argues that this is problematic moral ground. He traces an imagined heritage of organ transplants through medieval relics and cultural practices. This book would be challenging for a teenager, so teachers should use selected quotations and summarise the main arguments with their students. 

From a field researcher

Trading Life: Organ Trafficking, Illicit Networks, and Exploitation

by Seán Columb, published by Stanford University Press, (2020), 9781503612556

This academic monograph presents a range of thoughtful case studies and nuanced arguments. Columb lays bare the trade itself, focusing on networks in Egypt, and argues that it would be less exploitative if people were paid fairly by the hospitals or state rather than promised payments that never happen. He also discusses cultural issues in Egypt and other countries where there is a taboo against organ donation after death, leading to severe shortages. As with many other ethical issues, the illegal organ trade is tied up with migration and poverty. 

An Islamic perspective

Organ Transplantation, Euthanasia, Cloning and Animal Experimentation: An Islamic View

by Abul Fadl Mohsin Ebrahim, published by The Islamic Foundation, (2001), 9780860373315

This book explains a range of Islamic perspectives on organ transplants, including fascinating differences of opinion between, for example, the Hanafi school, which argues that all bodies should be buried, and the law of public welfare, Al Maslahah, which argues that the unlawful can sometimes be permissible if it will help others. Ebrahim also explains general principles on which most Muslim scholars agree, such as how selling organs is haram (forbidden) in Islam due to the idea of our bodies being in amanah (trust) from God. 

Further Materials

The Declaration of Istanbul on Organ Trafficking and Transplant Tourism Visit this website
We have a moral obligation to donate organs by Julian Savulescu, Peter Singer and William Isdale, published by The Age, (2015) Read this article
The Organ Donor Experience: Good Samaritans and the Meaning of Altruism by Katrina A. Bramstedt and Rena Down, published by Rowman & Littlefield, (2011) Find this book
Susan Woodshore is a teacher in Edinburgh. She has a PhD in Ecclesiastical History and enjoys creating new educational resources across religion, ethics and philosophy.

Text © Susan Woodshore, 2023.