Monday, June 13, 2011


I got in my car and switched on the radio as I always do when driving back home from the gym. As usual, Larry Mantel was on, and his guest was Scott Carney. I’d never heard his name before but you can be sure my ears perked up when he said, ‘…organ trafficking.’

Scott Carney is a contributing editor for Wired magazine and an investigative reporter who used to live in India. He became interest in organ trafficking after a friend of his died there. The vultures immediately began to circle (not literally). Before his friend was dead, organ brokers came out of the woodwork, asking Scott what he intended to do with his friend’s body parts.

India is a growing economy, but there are still plenty of Third World characteristic in the way the country functions. One of these is a lack of basic, essential, well-organized, regulatory mechanisms i.e. laws on the books that are actually enforced. In this case (and countless others), it means supervised and controlled organ donation, retrieval and transfer laws. According to Carney, ever since organ transplants have become commonplace, life expectancy has risen around the world by thirty years. The problem is the means by which this life expectancy has been attained.

China is pretty much in the same boat when it comes to organ trafficking, but India seems to have the most blatant problem. On one hand, consider the 25 billionaires who have emerged from India’s steadily growing economy. On the other hand, consider over 51% of the Indian population don’t have a toilet. It would be presumptuous of me to say “don’t have a toilet in their home” because stacked cardboard boxes hardly qualify as a ‘home.’ 51% of India’s population means twice the population of the United States uses a toilet outside of their dwelling or, a plastic bags...if it’s available. Add lack of social standards, rampant corruption and mismanaged, inefficient bureaucracy to this equation and you have a recipe for exploitation.

I can tell you in all certainty that the 25 billionaires don’t become targets of organ trade rings. However I’m not so sure about the five hundred million who don’t have toilets. Everybody from broker, to doctor, authorities, hospital and donor are in on the scam. Scott Carney went on to mention a group of eighty women post tsunami so desperate to feed their family they sold their kidney for less than $2,000. When you don’t have a toilet, it sounds like a lot of money. But it isn’t. It was quickly spent, and the families ended up in even worse situations than before (is that even possible?), especially in those much too often cases where the organ retrieval hadn’t been done properly.

Speaking of retrieving an organ properly…most recently, a seventeen-year-old boy in China really wanted an iPad 2. So much so that he was willing to do anything to get one, even sell his kidney. And it was much too easy for him to do this. A broker contacted the teen on the Internet. The teen ended up following the broker’s instructions, and going to hospital #198 in Chenzhou without notifying his parents, and having his kidney removed.

This story is disturbing on so many levels. It turns out, hospital #198 wasn’t qualified to perform such a surgery. You’d ask yourself, why would they accept to do the job? As a result, the boy is having serious health complications due to…a poorly retrieved organ. China, the up and coming economy just like India, has plenty of corruption to go around. No matter how illegal, everyone is a willing participant if it means a payday. Organ trafficking has become a very lucrative way to compensate for low paying jobs, joblessness and poverty.

Now about the boy; this is an example of the increasing consumerism among Chinese youth. There’s a strong likelihood peer pressure from friends or classmates pushed the teen to these extreme measures. Perhaps he wanted to fit in. Or he fell pray to the ‘keeping up with the Jones’ mentality now rampant in the newly materialistic China. The boy received $3,400 for his organ, got an iPad 2, but might die because no one ever stopped him along the way.

No system is perfect. Here in the United States, some doctors have slipped through the cracks. In 2005, St. Vincent hospital in Los Angeles had to shut down the liver transplant department. Doctors gave a Saudi national who was #52 on the list, a liver that was meant for a near-death person. He ended up passing away. While it’s sad such an unethical decision was made, it’s also true that the checks and balances worked. A thorough investigation shed light on the fraud. Dr. Lopez, head of the transplant department, had to resign.

What is the conclusion if you live in India or China and need an organ? Best case scenario is that you’re somehow related to one of the 25 billionaires. Short of that, you’re pretty much on your own. 

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