Review: Healy, Last Best Gifts

January 29, 2007
By

jacket imageVirginia Postrel has taken a detour from her Atlantic Monthly column, “Commerce & Culture,” to write an interesting review for yesterday’s New York Times Book Review of Kieran Healy’s recent work, Last Best Gifts: Altruism and the Market for Human Blood and Organs.
Healy’s book is a sociological exploration of organ donation and the ethos of altruism that surrounds it—an ethos that the ever increasing demand for blood and organs threatens to extinguish. In recent years the increasing need for transplantation has supported the notion that donors might be supplemented or replaced by paid suppliers. However, Postrel writes, “even in the face of a critical shortage of organs, many leaders in the transplant field oppose any financial incentives for organ donors, including tax credits or payments toward funeral expenses.” Last Best Gifts offers a fresh perspective on this ethical dilemma, examining the social organization of blood and organ donation in Europe and the United States to propose a balanced and nuanced solution that does justice to both sides of the argument. Postrel’s review explains:

As an economic sociologist, Healy adds important dimensions to the intensifying debate over organ procurement. He reminds both advocates and opponents of markets that commercial transactions are embedded in social structures and as likely as any other exchanges to have social meaning. To succeed, incentives must show sensitivity to those meanings. A direct payment to a funeral home, for example, could honor a donor family’s decision without making them seem to profit from their loved one’s death. Or healthy adults could make binding contracts to be organ donors if they die in the right circumstances, with life insurance paid for by transplant centers, the government or a private foundation going to their heirs.

Essential reading for sociologists, donors, and medical professionals, Last Best Gifts explores the future of medical practice in the modern market.

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