STUDENTS should be able to sell their kidneys for tens of thousands of pounds to pay off university debts, according to a Scots academic.
Sue Rabbitt Roff believes making it legal to sell the body part would boost the number of organs available to save lives and help students struggling with money.
She argues that donors should be paid the average UK annual income of around 28,000.
It is currently illegal to sell organs and tissues in the UK under the Human Tissue Act (2004) and across the world apart from in Iran.
The National Union of Students (NUS) in Scotland described the idea as "ludicrous" and said students should not be expected to lose a body part to pay for their education.
The Dundee University academic makes the controversial comments in an article in the British Medical Journal (BMJ) today. Mrs Roff, senior research fellow at the university's Department of Medical Sociology, told The Scotsman: "We are allowing young people to undertake 20,000 to 30,000 of university fee payments.
"We allow them to burden themselves with these debts. Why can't we allow them to do a very kind and generous thing but also meet their own needs?"
Ethics organisations argue changing the law would exploit poor people desperate for money.
However, Mrs Roff wrote in the BMJ article: "One reservation that many people express about such a proposal is that it might exploit poor people in the same way the illegal market does now.
"But if the standard payment were equivalent to the average annual income in the UK, currently about 28,000, it would be an incentive across most income levels for those who wanted to do a kind deed and make enough money to, for instance, pay off university loans."
She pointed out that three people on the kidney transplant list die in the UK every day.
However, Robin Parker, president of NUS Scotland, said: "Although the lack of available kidneys for transplant is truly tragic given the need, it's ludicrous to suggest that selling body parts is a viable solution to alleviating student poverty.
"Young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, are already being asked to take on huge debt to afford an education. They shouldn't be expected to remove a body part as well."
Dr Calum MacKellar, director of research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, said the move would be exploitative.
"To place a financial value on human beings or parts of human beings undermines the inherent dignity of the human person and the innate as well as immeasurable worth of all individuals," he said.
"A legal, regulated market in human body parts would end up exploiting those who have very restrictive financial means such as many students and foreigners."
Dr Tony Callan, chairman of the British Medical Association's ethics committee, agreed such a move would be wrong and instead called for a system of presumed consent when a person dies.
"Organ donation should be altruistic and based on clinical need. Living kidney donation carries a small but significant health risk. Introducing payment could lead to donors feeling compelled to take these risks, contrary to their better judgment, because of their financial situation."
In the past year, the Human Tissue Authority (HTA) approved 1,200 cases of donated organs and bone marrow, a six per cent increase on the previous year, including 40 donations between strangers.
A spokeswoman for the HTA said this showed increasing numbers of donors were coming forward and added that "the HTA must continue to ensure that living organ donation is something people enter into freely and without financial reward".
However, Mrs Roff does not think her article, entitled "We should consider paying kidney donors", is particularly controversial.
"We allow family members and friends to donate to each other even if they are not genetically related," she said.
"So I don't think it's a very big step to offer the same level of medical service but also make a payment. The only difference is the issue of money. So what's so problematic about money?"
She pointed out the procedure only carried the same risks as an elective Caesarean section.
However, Mrs Roff said she would not sell one of her kidneys. "I don't feel the need or the pressure for money. I'm a middle-class person and I'm not in that situation. But we shouldn't legislate for other people.
"Isn't it very patronising for those of us who are well-off to make decisions for those of us who are not? People must be allowed to make their own decisions.
"Why don't we put the question to the British public and see how they respond?"
She has two grown-up daughters and said she would support them selling a kidney "for the right reasons", but added she would probably just give them money so they did not have to.
l Additional reporting by Eleanor Mackay.