Nov 06 2013


Organlegging is the name of a fictional crime in the Known Space universe created by Larry Niven. It is the illicit trade of black market human organs for transplant. The term organlegging is a portmanteau combining the words “organ” and “bootlegging”, literally the piracy and smuggling of organs.

The crime developed as a response to the Organ Bank Problem, a concept featured prominently in the early Known Space stories, particularly those set in the 21st and 22nd century.

In Niven’s universe, it was possible to transplant nearly any organ in the body (and prevent rejection) by the mid 21st century. Since any organ could now be replaced, in theory one could use the organ banks to extend life indefinitely. To maintain communal organ banks, one needs donors (i.e. dead people). When the death rate is reduced (via the organ banks), the number of donors decreases. Thus, the supply of organs would continually reduce.

Compounding this problem, the high success rate of organ transplants tended to discourage research into other viable medical treatments. As a result, medical research was stagnated to a large extent, focusing primarily on improving transplants and little else. Repairing a failing organ (which could presumably fail again later) was considered secondary to the “complete” solution of replacing the failing organ.

An example in the Known Space universe was that anyone who wore eyeglasses was considered a reasonable candidate for an eye transplant (one or both); whereas in the real world, today’s nearsighted population can solve the problem (temporarily) by wearing corrective lenses or (more permanently) by undergoing laser surgery.

On Earth, the problem led to a repressive society almost unrecognizable by today’s standards. Since the average citizens wished to extend their lives, the world government sought to increase the supply by using condemned criminals to supply the organ banks. When this failed to meet the demand, citizens would vote for the death penalty for more and more trivial crimes. First violent crimes, then theft, tax evasion, false advertising, and even traffic violations became punishable by the organ banks. This failed to solve the problem, as once the death penalty was passed for a crime, people stopped committing it. This resulted in nearly every crime meriting the death penalty. Further attempts to alleviate the problem by declaring certain groups of cryogenically frozen people to be dead in law (the so-called “Freezer Bills”) and harvesting their organs also proved to be unsuccessful. The freezer vaults represented a finite supply and therefore were eventually exhausted.

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