One morning in 2003, Zell Kravinsky drove to his local hospital, had his kidney removed, and donated it to Donnell Reid, a woman he had met once. Donnell Reid was overcome with happiness — after eight draining years of dialysis, the donation was giving her the chance to have a future. At first glance, Kravinsky’s act seems insane and maybe almost stupid. Most people never think to donate a kidney, let alone to help a stranger. But Kravinsky’s behavior was grounded in clarity about the impact he wanted to leave on the world. Though I cannot argue that everyone should donate a kidney to a stranger (especially because I have not done this), I believe that we should all at least seriously consider doing so.
If you have two healthy kidneys, like most people, you are probably eligible to donate one. But only approximately 6,000 Americans do so each year. Obviously, I’m not arguing that everyone should donate a kidney — this is not an action that should be taken lightly. Kidney donors should be in good mental and physical health and undergo extensive testing to be sure that they are a good match for the recipient of the kidney. Kidney removal is an invasive medical procedure that carries with it non-zero chances of dangerous complications and even death. Still, these problems are extremely rare.
In fact, losing a kidney makes you no more likely than a similar non-donor to experience kidney failure, nor does it affect your life expectancy in other ways. And you are very unlikely to regret donating: 95% of donors rate their experience as positive and 94% say that they would donate again if they could. Additionally, donors have a high degree of long-term life satisfaction, and they may even live longer than the average person. Sometimes donors and recipients even form deep, long-term friendships.
For recipients, the positive impacts of kidney donations are overwhelming. People suffering from kidney diseases need dialysis or a kidney transplant to stay alive. Though dialysis is effective in the short term, it is exhausting, requiring constant hospital visits and the painful connection of a bag to the patient’s abdominal lining. Kidney transplants, on the other hand, are less invasive and tend to offer a much higher quality of life in the long term. People who receive transplants live far longer than those stuck on dialysis. Unfortunately, transplants are inaccessible to most because there is a massive kidney shortage: Over 100,000 people in the U.S. need a kidney transplant each year, yet less than 20% of these people receive one. Every day, 17 people die waiting for an organ transplant, all while there are millions of people who could donate kidneys to save many of these people while facing a relatively small amount of personal risk.
Considering the relative safety of donating a kidney and the huge positive impact it can have on a stranger’s life, why do most people never consider donating a kidney? In similar situations, helping the stranger would be a no-brainer. For example, say a stranger is about to get hit by a car and you have the opportunity to push them out of the way, but there is a slight chance that you will get hit instead. Nearly everyone would instinctively choose to save the stranger — the solution to this moral dilemma is so clear because we understand that the stranger faces a far greater risk than us. The notable difference between that scenario and a kidney donation is that when you choose not to donate a kidney, you are not forced to see a stranger suffer. But the result is still the same. Even though we are able to distance ourselves from those experiencing kidney failure, they are still suffering and we should want to help them. As the car scenario proves, perhaps donating a kidney should not be seen as a ridiculous act of altruism, but rather as one simple way to live more ethically.
Zell Kravinksy agreed with this line of reasoning, albeit in a more mathematical way. According to his calculations, he faced a one in 4,000 chance of dying as a result of the transplant. Donnell Reid, the receiver of the kidney, had nearly a one-in-one chance of dying if she did not receive a kidney. Kravinksy believed that if he did not donate his kidney, he would be implicitly saying that he valued his own life 4,000 times more than Reid’s, a ratio which he could not defend.
Though Kravinsky’s reasoning is a bit too mechanical for me, he raises a good point. If we face a relatively small chance of harm when donating a kidney and can greatly improve — and maybe even save — someone else’s life, can we excuse not donating? By not donating, are we implicitly saying that we do not sufficiently value the lives of others? Am I an unethical person because I still have two kidneys? I do not know the answers to these questions, but I do know that we should all be grappling with them.
Benjamin Aizenberg ’26 can be reached at email@example.com. Please send responses to this opinion to firstname.lastname@example.org and other op-eds to email@example.com.