Illegal immigrants and organ transplants

Cal Focus


By Thomas D. Elias    


The unproven, unprovable but persistent myth that undocumented immigrants are a vast financial burden on the American taxpayer is now extending to the unlikely field of organ transplants.

The latest furor began when about 40 persons, many undocumented, picketed a Chicago hospital in late summer demanding the government finance organ transplants for illegal immigrants, as it often does for others. Some were on a hunger strike, promising to persist on water and Gatorade until they are placed on the waiting list for organs like kidneys and livers.

So far, this demonstration has not been duplicated in California. But the issue of transplants for the undocumented arrived here early last year with the case of Jesus Navarro, who did not receive a kidney transplant set to go to him because at the last moment, doctors at the University of California’s San Francisco Medical Center learned his immigration status.

Navarro eventually got a transplant, but it was not paid for with government funds. That didn’t remove all the controversy, though.

“Why should an American citizen lose out on a transplant to someone in the country illegally?” asked the conservative blog Natural News, speaking for many.

One response might be that, contrary to urban legend, undocumented immigrants donate a lot more organs for transplant than they will ever use as long as they can’t legally enter programs like Medicare and Medi-Cal.

Asked the other day what the effect on organ donation might be if it became widely known that unauthorized immigrants can be wait-listed for organs and eventually receive them if financially qualified, the head of California’s largest organ procurement organization took a different tack.

“I worry far more about any group saying ‘If we can’t get transplants, why should we ever donate,’” said Thomas Mone, chief executive of Los Angeles-based OneLegacy, which arranges distribution of organs donated by the families of accident victims and others who die, but have reusable organs.

“We certainly don’t ask any prospective donors their immigration status when we’re asking them to donate,” he said. “It’s not pertinent medically and it could scare them off quickly. But we know about 10 percent of the population here is undocumented. And we know about 51 percent of our donors are Latino. So we estimate that about 50 of our approximately 450 donated organs each year come from the undocumented. We know for sure that 65 percent of Latino families who are asked to donate the organs of a deceased relative actually do it.”

So the undocumented almost certainly account for well over 10 percent of donations.

Meanwhile, an American Medical Assn. report found that, over the 20 years from 1988 to 2007, non-resident aliens (including illegal immigrants) received far less than 1 percent of all transplants nationally.

Mone estimates that less than 1 percent of transplants here go to non-resident aliens.” So illegal immigrants give far more than they’ve ever received. Who’s a burden on whom?

  • Fred Allebach

    This ought to stir up the Nativists!

  • annevincent

    Get real. “But we know about 10 percent of the population here is undocumented. And
    we know about 51 percent of our donors are Latino. So we estimate that
    about 50 of our approximately 450 donated organs each year come from the
    undocumented.” That’s quite an “estimate”. That “estimate” needs to be confirmed with actual documentation to determine if “undocumented” individuals actually donate organs. Its obvious that this is another attempt to demand that US taxpayers provide hugely expensive medical care for all comers, no matter the foreign national status. The American taxpayers are all tapped out. We can not afford the transplants for our own people, let alone for every human on the planet. Those who are making these demands for our “largess” need to let us know if they would be willing to personally give up a transplant that they might need themselves, so that a foreign national can get one.

  • Phineas Worthington

    Privatize organ donation and the problem of politics in the matter goes away.

    • Chris Scott

      Mr Worthington;

      Now that’s astute. You will no doubt be please to learn private organ donation already exists and quite successfully. There are two, the black market and the grey market. The black market kills people for their organs and sells them for the going rate on the open market or to the highest bidder. The grey market buys organs from a living donor usually desperate for money selling one kidney or a piece of a lung for the next to nothing. The organs again are sold at the going market rate for the particular organ. In both markets the risks are very high for the recipient with poor to bad screening of the organ, possible falsified documentation.

      Reputable organ donation is through non-profits organizations of which there are many in the US and worldwide, in conjunction with the national and international organ donation networks for organ placement. Doctors and clinicians screen candidates who are listed on a need basis and organ match is done with extreme care. The problem is the lack of uniformity to the process across the country. The donation process is largely regional as major organs must be transplanted within a very short period of time. Some regions or locales have shorter waiting lists than others therefore shorter wait times.. Steve Jobs is one of the more high profile examples of this. He relocated to a city with one of the shortest wait time and received his transplant in surprising time. In this circumstance the potential for politics, the more mundane and pedestrian kind, potential is high. Perhaps you read some of the criticism and ethical controversy at the time this was revealed. Liuckily it lead to a certain amount of tightening of the protocols.

      Last type of organ donation is between individuals, either family members or volunteering for a specific need.

      The common misconception is the organ donation only involves heart, kidney, lungs, and other major organs. Much less know is the nned for skin, bone, cartilage, parts of the eyes, arteries and veins, various other tissues, etc. If you donate your for organ donation following your death all of these are harvested.

      The solution to the organ donation shortage, the black and grey markets, is a dramatic rise in individuals donating their organs for both transplant and research. Education to increase awareness of the need and benefits. Opt out rather than opt in – when you get your drivers license you have to wave your organs going for transplant purposes otherwise the standard is your organs will be harvested barring religious, cultural or other personal reasons. Organ donation has to become the accepted norm, common place and routine rather than not the exception, scarce and a decision approached only at the worst time for families at the time of a loved ones death.

      Medicine and science will help resolve this but the prospects are long term. The advent of cloning or growing individual organs under laboratory conditions and the slowly advancing medical technology to alleviate medical conditions that today can only be overcome through transplantation, i.e., gene therapy, stem cells, etc. Possibly you read the recent news item of a patient in I believe China where doctors were able to grow a replacement nose on a man’s forehead? True. Google it.

      Elias tends to write with less than a complete picture or data for (editorial) effect. So when reading his pieces it helps to maintain certain skepticism and look a little deeper into whatever the topic.for yourself. This article would be a good example.

      Chris Scott

      • Phineas Worthington

        You make many good points, many I knew, some I did not. I would like to add one suggestion, allow people to sell their own organs and tissue for profit not only at death, but also while alive. That will increase the supply of these commodities a lot more than simple voluntarism. The advancements in tissue and organ growth from genetic science are just wonderful and circumvent many of the religious, ethical barriers that cause conflict in the political realm.

        It does disturb me quite a bit that so many people think that the Communist Chinese selling the organs of executed prisoners to the highest bidders in the west is regarded as a free trade. It is not. I am not trying to imply that this is what you are saying btw, though many do.