The Big Donor Show

by Russ Roberts on May 29, 2007

in Health

The BBC reports on the outcry over a reality show where a terminally ill patient will decide who gets one of her kidneys:

A Dutch TV station says it will go ahead with a
programme in which a terminally ill woman selects one of three patients
to receive her kidneys.

Political parties have called for The Big Donor Show to
be scrapped, but broadcaster BNN says it will highlight the country’s
shortage of organ donors.

"It’s a crazy idea," said Joop Atsma, of the ruling Christian Democrat Party.

"It can’t be possible that, in the Netherlands, people vote about who’s getting a kidney," he told the BBC.

Sounds like a sure ratings winner. But the broadcasting station, BNN, has a political and educational motive as well:

The former director of TV station BNN, Bart de Graaff, died from kidney
failure aged 35 after spending years on a transplant waiting list.

"The chance for a kidney for the contestants is 33%,"
said the station’s current chairman, Laurens Drillich. "This is much
higher than that for people on a waiting list."

"We think that is disastrous, so we are acting in a shocking way to bring attention to this problem."

"For years and years we have had problems in the
Netherlands with organ donations and especially kidney donations,"
agreed Alexander Pechtold of D-66, the Dutch social liberal party.

"You can have a discussion about if this is distasteful,
but finally we have a public debate," he told BBC Radio 4′s Today

As you might expect, the kidney establishment isn’t too keen on the spotlight:

The Dutch donor authority has condemned the show, as have kidney specialists in the UK.

"The scenario portrayed in this programme is ethically
totally unacceptable," said Professor John Feehally, who has just ended
his term as president of the UK’s Renal Association.

"The show will not further understanding of  transplants," he added. "Instead it will cause confusion and anxiety."

As a writer at the British Guardian puts it:

"My first reaction, probably everyone’s reaction, is
that this is as dangerously near as we’ve got to a TV programme playing
God," said Julia Raeside of the Guardian newspaper.

And how is the decision made now in the UK? The answer is earlier in the article from Professor Feehally, the outgoing head of the UK Renal Association.

"The set up of the programme bears no relationship to the way decisions are made about transplants in the real world," he said.

"Living donors can choose altruistically to give one of their kidneys – usually to a family member.

"If organs become available after someone dies, health
professionals with access to detailed information about those waiting
for a transplant make objective decisions about who should receive
those particular kidneys."

Health professionals with detailed information making objective decisions. Sounds so scientific. Objective decisions? Impossible. A better word would be arbitrary. Or maybe random. Or maybe selfish. With people dying because there aren’t enough kidneys for transplant, how would you describe someone who gives the current system a patina of objectivity?

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happyjuggler0 May 29, 2007 at 10:45 pm

You're slipping Russell. An article of waiting lists and shortages, and no mention of price by the writer or you? Scandalous.

Set a price of zero for suppliers of a good or service and it ought not to be shocking that demand outstrips supply, radically so.

With any luck folks in the Netherlands will bring up the notion of too low a price, but it would help if economists who know something about the lack of prices and their implications made sure they were heard.

ben May 30, 2007 at 5:31 am

"The scenario portrayed in this programme is ethically totally unacceptable," said Professor John Feehally, who has just ended his term as president of the UK's Renal Association.

This from a man who has led an organisation promoting rules that needlessly kill hundreds or thousands of people each year. Who's being unethical?

Tim Worstall May 30, 2007 at 9:10 am

Apologies for whay might seem like link whoring but there are further links within this:

The only country in hte world without a kidney waiting list is the only one with a (regulated) paid market for live donors.


Jon May 30, 2007 at 12:31 pm

"The show will not further understanding of transplants," he added. "Instead it will cause confusion and anxiety."

Pardon my expletives, but these people should damn well be confused and anxious! Their chances of them getting a kidney are low!

ben May 30, 2007 at 3:51 pm

Good post Tim Worstall.

Niels M. B. June 1, 2007 at 10:21 am

The Broadcasting Station BNN is young and progressive. The Ducth are ahead of discussion in contrast with other countries. And this is the way the young Ducth society handels problems in a modern way. They don't hold back and face the problem as it is. I think this is an unorthodox way to handle the donation shortage but the next generation of people is not orthodox, so older people will have to keep up with the youth.

vcif June 1, 2007 at 2:28 pm

agree with # 1 poster. shame on you. F.A. would easily have diagnosed the source of the problem – price fixed at Zero results in a shortage. DUH!

Patrick June 1, 2007 at 4:17 pm

The big donor show was broadcasted this evening with the big finale 15 minutes ago. The show was a big hoax in order to get attention to the donation problem in the Netherlands. The donator was an actress. The contestants were people with a real kidney disorder…

Maud June 1, 2007 at 4:23 pm

Brilliant! I hope this will open the eyes of many people. And yes, I am a donor and I think it's important that people do the same. What's the use of keeping your organs when you don't use them any more (! read: when your dead!).

teiz June 1, 2007 at 6:46 pm

To add to vcif's post: the contestants were fully aware of the fact that the donator was an actress before the show.

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