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Walter E. Williams / November 25, 2009

Voluntarism or Self-Interest?

How many things in our lives would we like to depend upon the generosity and selflessness of our fellow man, and do you think we would like the outcome? You say, “Williams, are you now putting down generosity and selflessness?” No, I’m not. Let me ask the question in a more direct way. Say you want a nice three-bedroom house. Which human motivation do you think would get you the house sooner: the generosity of builders or the builders’ desire to earn some money? What about a nice car? Which motivation of auto companies and their workers do you trust will get you a car sooner: the generosity of owners and workers, or owner desire for profits and worker desire for wages? As for me, I put my faith in people’s self-interest as the most reliable way to get them to do what I want and believe most other people share my faith. What would your prediction be about the supply of housing, cars and most other things if Congress enacted a law mandating that a house or car could only be donated, not sold? If you said there would be a shortage of houses and cars, go to the head of the class.

Bone marrow transplantation is a relatively new medical procedure that is used to treat diseases once thought incurable such as leukemia, aplastic anemia, Hodgkin’s disease, immune deficiency disorders and some solid tumors such as breast and ovarian cancer. Every year, at least 1,000 Americans die and others suffer because they cannot find a matching bone marrow donor. The reason why there is a shortage of donors is the National Organ Transplant Act (NOTA), enacted by Congress in 1984. NOTA makes it illegal to give anything of value in exchange for bone marrow and that includes, for example, giving a college student a scholarship or a new homeowner a mortgage payment. Everyone involved in such a transaction – doctors, nurses, donors and patients – risks up to five years in a federal penitentiary.

There might be light at the end of the tunnel because the Washington-based Institute for Justice (ij.org), one of my very favorite liberty-oriented organizations, has brought suit against this inhumane practice of the U.S. Congress. The suit, Flynn v. Holder, was filed in the Los Angeles Division of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California on Oct. 26, 2009. Doreen Flynn, the plaintiff, is the mother of five children, three of whom have Fanconi anemia, a serious genetic disorder affecting the blood whose sufferers often need a bone marrow transplant during their teen years.

The Institute for Justice is not challenging Congress’ ban on compensation for solid organs such as hearts, kidneys and livers. Instead, the lawsuit challenges only the provision of National Organ Transplant Act that bans compensation for bone marrow. The premise of the Institute for Justice’s legal challenge is that there is a fundamental biological distinction between renewable marrow cells and nonrenewable solid organs. In the case of bone marrow, the donor’s bone marrow is completely replenished in a few weeks. That’s less time than it takes for the human body to fully replenish a pint of donated blood that is often sold to blood banks.

Just about everyone would agree that there would be massive shortages and discontent if there were a congressional mandate that we must depend on our fellow man’s generosity for our home, our car, our food and thousands of other items that we use. Why then must a person depend on his fellow man’s generosity for an item like bone marrow that might mean the difference between life and death? There is no rhyme or reason for the congressional prohibition of bone marrow other than arbitrary unconstitutional abuse of power that far too many Americans tolerate and would like to see extended to other areas of our lives.

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