In a recent New York Times op/ed that is creating a buzz on the blogosphere, Alexander Berger tries to persuade people that donating a kidney while you’re alive is no big deal. He says that donating a kidney is easy, and writes:

When I first told some friends and family that I wanted to donate a kidney, they assumed I’d gone off my rocker. They saw it as a crazy act of self-sacrifice, rather than what it is — one of the many ways a reasonably altruistic person can help others.

Yet he gives one key datum that I found incredibly sobering. If he’s right about this datum, then he successfully talked me out of ever donating a kidney to a stranger. Here’s the datum:

I am 21, but even for someone decades older, the risk of death during surgery is about 1 in 3,000.

Whoa! Really? That’s huge. Let’s put it in perspective. 1 in 3,000 is 33 in 100,000. So look at Table 2 in this Concise Encyclopedia article by Aaron and Adam Wildavsky.

The probability of death in a year in some of the riskiest occupations is the same order of magnitude. Per 100,000 people at risk in farming it’s 28, in mining 27, and in police work 20.

When, as senior economist for health policy with the Council of Economic Advisers, I wrote my memo on why kidney sales should be legal, I mistakenly left out this risk.

Berger and I agree that kidney sales should be legal and people should be allowed to take that risk (although he advocates screwy restrictions on sales and I don’t, and I think he way overstates the market-clearing price of a kidney), so that’s not the issue here. The issue is that a risk that Berger dismisses as small is, if he has the numbers right, actually substantial.

Question: did he mean to write “1 in 30,000?” That’s much easier to take.

HT to Danny Shapiro.