Inequalities of Organ Donation


The act of organ donation is unequal and this could result in the exploitation of marginalized individuals such as the poor or those who cannot or are unable to speak for themselves. One type of inequality is discussed in ‘Reciprocity and the Anthropology of Organ Transplants’, that deals with the intrinsic notions of reciprocity that come into play with transferring organs.

The article is based on the work of Margaret Lock– an ethnography comparing attitudes towards organ transfer in Japan and North America. In North America the anonymous donation of organs is said to result in “a frustrated sense of obligation toward the family of the donor for the extraordinary act of benevolence.’ This has prompted recipients of organs to learn more about the donor and even tries to mimic their (perceived) behavior. In Japan, there is said to be an ‘economy of exchange’ that requires an implicit need for reciprocation. Thus, organ donation is not very popular in the country as the family of the donor considers the person to ‘live on’ within the body of the receiver.

The work of Charlotte Ekels found that there also exist inequalities in the symbolism of the actual organs. For example, in many cultures the heart is seen as the ‘locus of feeling’ and it would evoke a very different symbolism than donating lets say, a kidney. Conversely, traditional Chinese medicine considers the kidney to be the storehouse of cosmic energy.

With the waiting list of organ donation at 122,000 in the United States alone, the merits of studying organ donations cannot be disputed. It is essential to understand the inequalities that are present within the process, as this would provide conversation on ways to remedy public thinking and understanding of the donation/transfer procedure.