Human Organ Trafficking: Ugly & Immoral? Beginning a Public Discussion

August 30th, 2010

Photo by Spc. Laura Owen, U.S. Army | Photo Courtesy of U.S. Army

When you first hear about it, the trafficking of human organs sounds like a gruesome black-market practice, carried out by the shadowy characters of the global criminal underworld. And you wouldn’t be entirely wrong. Just Google “organ trafficking” and you’ll see hundreds of pictures of people holding up their shirts to reveal long scars from where their kidneys have been removed. None of the people photographed look like your college roommate or the captain of the tennis team. None of them are reclined in a plush Manhattan parlor or smiling as they climb into the back of a town car. They’re usually sitting on the dirty city streets of developing countries or lying on hospital cots looking undernourished and desperate. Add to this image the unconfirmed reports of people being kidnapped for the express purpose of organ removal and the whole business just seems disgusting and hellish.

But what if your son WAS the captain of the tennis team? And what if you were told that without a kidney transplant he only had a few months left to live? And—by the way—he’ll join thousands of people on a waiting list (Good luck!). OR … for $100,000 someone offers to get you a kidney and perform the surgery and the whole thing can be taken care of in two weeks.  Not only that: the donor is an Egyptian man who has come upon hard times and is eager to make $5,000 so he can provide for his family.

The fact is that the selling of human organs is banned in almost every country around the world, despite the fact that the demand for transplant organs vastly exceeds supply. It is also true that the only country that doesn’t suffer from organ shortage is also the only country that doesn’t ban organ sales: Iran.

Sure the whole thing seems mighty unsavory. And in its current black-market form there is a lot of space for the exploitation of the desperate and impoverished. However, isn’t there a strong “greater good” argument to be made for allowing organ sales to occur in some sort of regulated way? It seems to work in Iran, after all, and regulating it could ensure that the donors are given a fair price, proper medical attention, and is made aware of the medical risks that she or he is taking.

While I don’t endorse the immediate legalization of the organ trade, I do believe it’s time to have a serious discussion about the issue.

If illicit markets exist to meet demand, then we don’t have many choices when it comes to curtailing organ-trafficking. The black market organ trade will continue to flourish as long as waiting lists are 100,000 strong and the cost of waiting could be the lost-life of a loved one. It would be a different story if we were talking about black market iPods where the cost of not having one is… simply not having an iPod, but too many good people would willingly break this law to save the life of their son or daughter.

Regardless, I hope this is never a decision that I have to make.

Written by Jeremy Haken

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