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The Editors

The Transplant Waiting List Is Where Hope Goes to Die

America needs more live kidney donors. A good start would be to stop penalizing them.

Only for the lucky.

Only for the lucky.

Photographer: Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images

It’s illegal to pay for a human kidney, but it’s perfectly fine to beg for one. So if you’ve driven through Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina, Manhattan or Los Angeles recently, you may have seen billboards taken out by patients urging passers-by to part with their kidneys. Hundreds more patients seek living donors online; others search abroad (often with grim results). 

There just aren’t enough organs to go around. For every 1,000 Americans who pledge to donate their kidneys after death, only three die in a way that permits a transplant. That frees up about 14,000 kidneys a year — about one for every seven people on the 90,000-strong transplant waiting list. The longer they wait — five years, on average — the sicker they get. Every day, some 13 people die waiting.