According to Global Financial Integrity, it is estimated that 10% of all organ transplants are conducted with trafficked organs (“Organ Trafficking”). Organ trafficking is a specific kind of human trafficking and it usually involves organ dealers exploiting a vulnerable population of people. Today’s post will focus on the basics of organ trafficking and will also touch on how some recent world events have actually helped give this illegal market a stronger foothold. Although science has reached far beyond the capabilities of our wildest imaginations, it is still not yet possible for laboratories to perfectly replicate the intricate inner workings of our bodies, forcing us to rely on human donors for the gift of life.

Supply & Demand:

An average of 22 people die in the United States alone per day while waiting to receive an organ, and a new person is added to the waiting list every 9 minutes (“Do U.S…”). Wait times in developed countries can seem insurmountable to a patient and this sense of desperation can lead them to travel to other countries in order to obtain what they need (aka: transplant tourism). For countries with free healthcare, medical tourism is a common occurrence because more people can go to the doctors causing overcrowding for medical institutions. This is one major complication with the idea of universal healthcare, but that, my friends, is another problem for another day. 

The National Kidney Foundation claims that the average U.S. wait time for a kidney transplant is 3.6 years (“Organ trafficking…”). The most in demand organs are kidneys by far, followed then by the liver, heart, and lungs. With kidneys being so desperately needed, it is no surprise that the World Health Organization estimates that 10,000 kidneys are traded on the underground market each year (“Organ trafficking…”). One of the major questions that surfaces from this topic is, who are the people donating the organs and why are they doing it?

Deals of Desperation:

In the organ trade, pieces of real people are turned into commerce. Organ trafficking is not a victimless crime and can negatively impact both the donor as well as the recipient. In lesser developed countries, “brokers” will coerce vulnerable individuals to donate parts of their bodies in exchange for monetary gains. In many instances, the donors never actually receive payment from the exchange. There are even cases where organ traders misinform people by telling them that their organ will grow back over time. Most cases of trafficked organs involve the donor being threatened or coerced but there have been numerous cases investigated where people were drugged, kidnapped, and operated on against their will. 

Men in Asia show the scars that remain after having donated a kidney to raise money for their families. Image Credit: University of Cambridge

In the shadow of natural disasters and economic downturns there are organ traders lurking. For example, in an Indian refugee camp, nicknamed ‘Kidneyville’, women sold their kidneys in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami (Philip). Women were walking around with scars on their exposed midriffs, evidence of the deals they had made with brokers. In China, a lot of organs are purchased from soon-to-be executed criminals. Websites post notices of the organs online where they are bought. An ambulance goes to the execution destination to pick up the organ and takes it to a nearby hospital where the recipient is waiting (Philip). Of course, profit often leads to corruption and I can imagine many countries struggle over the ethical debate that derives from the non-consensual organ donation of criminals. Although it is impossible to know the figures for sure, the GFI believes that the illegal organ market generates between 840 million and 107 billion dollars each year (“Organ trafficking…”). 

Some people donate their organs because they find themselves drowning in debt, some do it to earn enough money to escape marriages and deplorable living conditions. The global outbreak of the Covid-19 virus actually led a lot of people to this path by putting many breadwinners out of work and in tight situations (“Covid-19…”). Organ trafficking is still a big problem in countries such as India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Egypt. Most medical facilities in developed nations today try to prevent organ trafficking by carefully screening donors in order to ensure that they are not being threatened, misinformed, or coerced. It has also become a standard practice for donors and recipients to be questioned separately and asked to fill out lengthy forms of consent. Although these practices help, they certainly do not eradicate the illegal organ market. Organ brokers continue to find people desperate for money or desperate to acquire a life-saving organ and use their need to their own advantage.

There are many people out there waiting for the phone call that will save their lives. If you haven’t ever considered becoming an organ donor, I recommend that you read up on it and make an educated decision of what you feel would be best for you. If you are seeking some more information on proper organ donation, I have linked the website of the Health Resource and Service Administration HERE to learn more.

The Human Trafficking hotline:1-888-373-7888

If you see something, Say something

As always, thank you so much for reading!

Until Next Time:

N.F.

Sources:

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